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Budget first priority for school trustees

Chris Vernon-Jarvis, Christine Buttkus studying funding formulas

With Andrée Janyk stepping down after 12 years as a school trustee, Whistler lost a lot of experience on the School District 48 — also known as the Howe Sound School District, and soon to be known as the Sea to Sky School District.

Parents seemed to recognize that when they elected Chris Vernon-Jarvis to a second term, with Janyk’s endorsement. Christine Buttkus, known for her role as an administrator for the Whistler Children’s Centre, and her work with various non-profits, was elected as Whistler’s second trustee. The next term starts in December, coinciding with the finalized budget.

Vernon-Jarvis campaigned on a platform of sound management, rather than a response to every crisis, like the battle of the Olympic year school calendar.

“These things come and go, but the fact is that life goes on and if all you do is run around and look for fires to put out then you’re not paying enough attention to education,” he said. “We will deal with those other things, as we do in a very collaborative way, but education is always the priority.”

The primary challenge facing the board this year is a provincial change to the funding formula. Starting in September, the province has based funding for high schools on the number of courses taken, rather than the number of students. For Whistler Secondary — which offers a special program for sports and the arts that allows students to attend school part-time and take correspondence while they train and compete — that could mean less funding.

“This is certainly an enormous concern to us,” said Vernon-Jarvis. “This is the first year where we’ll be feeling the impact of that, as well as the impact of slightly declining enrolment. We’re not in the same position of many districts where the student rolls have declined more, and schools have been shut, but it’s serious enough to have an impact on our budget.”

Vernon-Jarvis said the budget is still in a process of negotiation. At the end of September the schools provide the Minister of Education with a list of students and courses, which the Ministry evaluates through October to allocate a budget. Through the month of November the school board goes through the provincial budget and ensures that it tallies with their original school budget, and the budget is finalized in early December.

Vernon-Jarvis says the schools will cope with the change to the funding formula and declining numbers this year without curtailing any important programs or deducting funds from teaching. However, he says they are watching the trends closely to determine what the future impact might be.

“The concern is that your budget might shrink and the number of students, but your overhead costs don’t,” he said. “You still have to keep schools opened, they still have to be maintained and cleaned, you still have to run a school bus whether you have 56 students or 48. If the student roll goes any smaller, then we could have problems in the future.

“You also can’t replace technology as quickly as you should because there’s little or no money left over in the budget at the end of the year.”

The school board is in the process of assessing its long-term needs, determining what the demand for elementary and secondary education will be. Vernon-Jarvis says the exercise will help schools plan for the future.

“We’ve been working on our budgets in consultation with our partners in an open process, which is the new open idea of running things,” said Vernon-Jarvis. “We talk to the teachers, to principals and vice principals, to PACs (Parent Advisory Councils) and other stakeholders that can comment on our budget. We take those comments into consideration all the time, and we keep stakeholders up to date with all of the issues.”

Buttkus, who will sit down with the board for the first time on Dec. 10, is spending the next few weeks reading to become more familiar with all of the issues.

While there were a lot of issues brought up in the course of the election — class sizes, special needs students, provincial education funding, the Olympic calendar, provincial exams, full-day kindergarten, attracting more international students — she also believes the biggest challenge is balancing the budget and possible funding shortfalls.

“There’s a real need to look closely at funding formulas and what it means in terms of classroom composition,” she said. “A lot of people I met over the course of the campaign raised the issue of support for students with special needs. It’s a challenge for teachers, who are being asked to do more with less.”

Buttkus said the campaign was an intense but rewarding process, and that she hopes the other candidates stay involved.

“I hope all the people who were not successful this time around will stay engaged in the process and work with us,” she said. “We need an active and engaged community, and to work together to stay on top of the issues.”

Not as many people voted for school trustees as for mayor and council, but Vernon-Jarvis was the clear winner with 933 votes. Buttkus earned 584 votes, 28 more than runner-up Amy Allen.