By Loreth Beswetherick
Gone are the days of simple bake sales to raise funds for the fun stuff — the Parent Advisory Council at Myrtle Philip community school has begun crunching numbers in an effort to help resolve district funding concerns at the school.
Because of PAC’s lobbying, the school board has now agreed to engage the services of an independent audit team to review funding and spending at Myrtle Philip for 1998/1999 and 1999/2000 and report back to the board.
The move to site-based management last year has left Myrtle Philip, the elementary school with the most students in the district, with the smallest operating budget. The school needs an extra $25,000 to provide the basic service B.C. parents and students expect — like text books.
School District 48 has told the school the shortfall is not a result of the new funding formula but rather an internal "spending problem."
This didn’t gel with Myrtle Philip staff and the PAC who set to work on the onerous task of comparing budgets, operating costs, staffing and student ratios and actual spending at other district schools.
PAC treasurer Gary Pringle, an accountant, said from a lay person’s point of view, his research seems to indicate Myrtle Philip is not richly staffed compared to other schools — something district superintendent Mike Fitzpatrick has suggested may be the case.
Pringle said the PAC took the same numerical information the board had but looked at it in a different way. He said the parents approached their research with an open mind, the goal being simply to get to the bottom of where the problem lay.
"They challenged us," said Pringle. "Before we started to look at it, there were no basis of comparison."
He said some parents suggested hiring an auditor. "But why should we spend money looking at it? We are just parents. The school board is responsible for making sure the allocations are fair." Nevertheless countless volunteer hours have been put into the PAC research and no glaring "spending problem" has been found. "There is no smoking gun," said Pringle.
The PAC travelled to Squamish to present their findings and argue their case for more cash at the board’s Nov. 10 meeting. PAC chair Leslie Patterson, Pringle, principal Bob Daly, vice principal Nick Pascuzzi and several parents attended the presentation.
"Our student-educator ratio clearly shows we are not richly staffed," said Patterson. "The Myrtle Philip ratio for 1998/1999 showed we had the third highest ratio out of elementary schools in the district and only the fourth highest projected for 1999/2000." She said the ratio includes the French students with their smaller class sizes as well as accounting for the fact Myrtle Philip is in the unique position of having to allow for growth throughout the school year.
"And we are still better than average," said Patterson. "That was the big thing because Mike (Fitzpatrick) kept saying we were richly staffed. Hopefully we managed to blow that one out of the water," she said.
"We also pointed out there was over $1 million surplus at the board and district levels yet our school appears to be underfunded. As a taxpayer you wonder what is going on here. They are collecting this money and not spending it on the kids."
Pringle presented his findings in detailed transparencies.
He said Myrtle Philip does not appear to be spending more per student on staff than other schools and, if the student-educator ratio is not higher than average, the school should be doing all right from a lay person’s point of view.
Pringle said the PAC doesn’t expect to resolve the issue for this year but hopes to ensure the problem doesn’t raise its head next year. "This shouldn’t be such an agonizing process."
He said the school can find the extra $25,000 if it really has to, but that would mean creating splits between the grades and not allowing for any new students. Already the school has received an extra five students since the start of the school year. Those pupils have come after the funding cut-off and no extra district cash is allowed for them. Last year an extra 25 arrived and staff expect that number will be matched this year.
"The school is being prudent in allowing for anticipated growth," said Pringle. "We’ve left room in classrooms. What would we tell those parents if classes were maxed out? Would we bus the students to Squamish or Pemberton?"
Although the PAC went to the board meeting hoping for an extra $25,000 they are happy with the prospect of an audit. The PAC does, however, want input into the financial review process. "We specified the PAC wants to be involved," said Patterson. "We are satisfied we are moving in the right direction," said Pringle.
School board secretary-treasurer Nancy Edwards said she was impressed with the PAC presentation. "They were extremely well informed and we will be looking to involve them on the independent audit." Edwards said the PAC didn’t really present any new information. "But they did present it in a different way. It helps you draw different conclusions."
She said the board will invite a PAC representative, Bob Daly and board personnel to an initial meeting to review all the facts. "Then the actual team will probably just consist of two auditors and the PAC rep. At this point we have approached another school district which will be taking it on but I can’t confirm who they are yet." Edwards said there will be no charge for the auditors but School District 48 will be expected to reciprocate in kind if needed. She said the actual review will likely be undertaken in early December.
The PAC also raised the fact Myrtle Philip now has 10 portables and more than 50 per cent of the school population is housed outdoors. "We almost have a full school outside," said Pringle. "We should be getting enough funding for two schools."
He said there is talk of at least four additional portables before the new Whistler South elementary school opens. The more than 300 students housed in Myrtle Philip portables will go a long way to filling the new school which will have room for 350 plus 100 Kindergarten students. Pringle questioned whether books and equipment from those portables would be moved to the new school and whether Myrtle Philip would get any credit for having had to fork out the cash to set up so many new divisions each year.
The funding formula allows $6,000 for the addition of a new division but Pringle said he has been told the actual cost is more in the region of $7,000 and that doesn’t include soft costs like new text books, posters and charts. He said 32 text books at around $35 per book, for example, starts adding up. "It is my understanding there is no funding for that. It has to come from the operating budget."
Parents have chipped in in some cases and bought entire sets of text and exercise books. Pringle said Whistler is fortunate enough to have parents who can do this but the situation is creating have and have-not classes.
"If you went to set up a new school do you think you would have to pay for those things? Something that isn’t addressed by the funding formula is how much it takes to set up new classes," said Pringle.
The carpeting in the old portables at Myrtle Philip is also being replaced with linoleum, at about $4,000 to $5,000 per classroom, in an effort to help alleviate allergy problems. No word yet on who will pick up the tab for that cost.
"We are not asking for more than anyone, we just want enough to maintain the quality of education for our kids."
Edwards said the majority of school districts in the province have not yet opted for decentralization, or site-based management. She feels, however, it is a growing trend. She said other districts she has had communication with have all gone through growth pains. "It is an evolutionary process and we have to remain open to see that we are basically thinking of everything and making sure the schools are being provided for."