All schools will remain open and no job losses are projected in any of the 13 schools in School District 58 (Nicola Similkameen) after the board of trustees passed a budget approving a $1.35 million deficit last week.

“The entire deficit will be covered through the use of reserves,” said board chair Gordon Comeau. “We will be passing a balanced budget as we’ve been fortunate enough in this school district to have accumulated a significant amount of reserves through the years.”

This year’s deficit is slightly less than the $1.58 million deficit that was approved by trustee for the current school year, said Comeau.

The board will officially adopt the 2016-17 school year budget at the next School District 58 board meeting in Merritt — the evening of Wednesday, May 11, said Comeau.

“We’ve gone through everything that needs to be discussed and we’re ready to adopt this budget,” he said.

The $1.35 million deficit comes out of a total annual school district budget in the range of $25 million, said Comeau.

Because the board will be presenting a balanced budget, he doesn’t foresee any scenario where anyone will lose their jobs within the school district, said Comeau.

Unless the Ministry of Education increases its funding to School District 58 very soon, this school district will soon be facing very difficult decisions about closing schools and/or reducing teaching staff and support staff, said Comeau.

“We have enough funds in our reserves to continue running deficits for another two or three years, but at some point the well is going to run dry,” he said. “We are better off than many other school districts because we have managed to put away some significant reserves, but those are starting to run dry.”

Trustees with School District 58 have joined thousands of others across the province calling out to the provincial Liberal government to increase funding for public education, but those cries continue to fall on deaf ears in Victoria, said Comeau.

“The reality is the government has to start putting increased funding into public education,” he said.

“And they have to stop downloading additional costs onto school districts without providing the extra funding that is needed to cover these significant costs.”

Comeau, who has been a school trustee for more than 35 years and has spent more than 15 years as board chair in School District 58, says he personally believes the “per student funding model” adopted by the Liberal government provides adequate funding in the classroom.

However, the Liberals fall way short when it comes to providing the necessary funding for ancillary costs such as Medical Services Plan (MSP) premiums, hydro, natural gas and property taxes, which increase with each passing year, he said.

“I personally have no problem with the per-student funding model … but what the province fails to acknowledge is the severe lack of funding for all of the costs they have downloaded onto school districts over the years,” he said. “Hydro rates and MSP rates have skyrocketed, but there is nothing in their funding model to provide increased funding for those costs.”

Every time any school district writes letters to the Ministry of Education about the lack of funding, the response is always the same, said Comeau.

“They state over and over again about how much more money they have put into the system,” he said. “But the majority of that money goes to cover increases in salaries and benefits.

“The reality is our hard costs for things like hydro and MSP premiums continue to skyrocket out of control and the government has shown no willingness whatsoever to provide extra funding to pay for those downloaded costs.

“That is what is hurting school districts across the province the most. They don’t acknowledge this whatsoever and that’s what makes it such a challenge for us.”

School District 58 is made up of seven trustees, with four from Merritt and three from Princeton.

There has been declining enrolment throughout the district for most of the past 20 years, said Comeau.

The peak enrolment in this district was around 1995-96, when there were more than 3,200 students enrolled across the district. That number now stands at approximately 2,200.

Local schools that are part of School District 58 include Merritt Bench Elementary, Merritt Central Elementary, Diamond Vale Elementary, Collettville Elementary, Nicola Canford Elementary and Merritt Secondary School.

Once the budget is passed on May 11, the school district will forward it to the Ministry of Education well before the June 1 provincial deadline, said Comeau.