The school district’s Finance and Facilities Committee meeting on May 6, 2008 didn’t even meet quorum, but the meeting carried on anyway. This was the final meeting of the school year; and considering the fact that so many of the committee’s meetings over that last two years or so have been canceled, or never even scheduled, it was one final opportunity to try and pry some information out about the school district’s financial affairs and facility issues.
After accepting the agenda (with one addition from me), and attending to a couple of minor items arising from the minutes of the previous meeting of the committee (April 1, 2008), Doug Wong (Secretary-Treasurer) proceeded to a review of the Board’s “feedback” to the recommendation of the committee from the April 1st committee meeting.
Feedback to the Committee from the School Board
The most notable item in the Board’s “feedback” to the committee relates to the troubled high school capital project. At previous meetings of the committee, requests were made for the committee to be provided with a written list showing the names of all the people who sit on the high school/middle school Project Steering Committee. The permanent members of the Project Steering Committee are as follows:
Nick Watkins, Committee Co-Chair (Ministry of Education)
- John Woudzia, Committee Co-Chair (SD40)
- Doug Hibbins (Trillium Business Strategies)
- Jim Alkins (Ministry of Education)
- John Baldwin (Partnerships BC)
- Larry Bryce (SD40)
- Ann McAlister (Partnerships BC)
Doug Wong said there are “a number of other reps who attend on a fairly regular basis, by invitation.” I asked who some of the other people on the steering committee were and we were told that these other people are mostly from the architect, cost consultant and engineering firms who are brought in as needed. Doug says, in total, there are about 20 people involved in the Steering Committee including a person from the Chilliwack School District who has recent experience with the “design/build” approach to construction. In Chilliwack, they were able to get considerably more space built into their new high school using the “design/build” approach than they would have with a more traditional building approach. Space was one of the major stumbling blocks with the previous high school replacement plan.
It is worth noting that no school trustees sit on the Project Steering Committee. I’m making note of this because there are some people in the community who seem to have the impression that one or more of the trustees are integrally involved in the planning of the new high school and middle school. Clearly they are not, which is probably a good thing given the disaster that the previous project turned into before it was abandoned and started again from square one.
Facilities update: Larry Bryce
Larry Bryce, the school district’s Facilities Manager, gave a brief update.
With reference to the Ladyman recommendations, Larry said that “all items that pertained to Operations and Maintenance either have been completed, have an ongoing status or have shared status with the District Health and Safety Department.” Larry presented a list of 25 items showing the status of specific recommendations from the Ladyman report.
With reference to “portables,” Larry says there are 29 portables in use in the school district and the district will be adding one more at Lord Tweedsmuir for September 2008. There is also some sort of “persistent” building envelope leak in one of the “building joints” of Lord Tweedsmuir. A structural engineer is apparently looking at this problem and working toward a “permanent solution to the problem.”
There are a variety of maintenance items in the works: for example, a number of painting projects like the outside of Glenbrook, the doors and trim at Howay and Tweedsmuir, and NWSS where required. The hockey box/garage roof at Herbert Spencer needs a new surface and sealant. The perimeter drains at McBride are to be replaced and the building checked for water penetration and repaired.
The lockdown incident at NWSS generated quite a bit of discussion. Different committee members shared their thoughts, experiences and suggestions in relation to this event. John Woudzia (Superintendent) expressed his gratitude to all involved in the incident and noted the way the community came together and helped.
There was a lot of discussion relating to the pros and cons of cell phones and the fact that text messages were a major feature of this event. On the one hand it was reassuring to parents to be able to receive and send messages to their children inside, but on the other hand a lot of inaccurate information seems to have circulated as well (both inside and outside the school).
There was also considerable discussion about having some sort of technology in place to be able to send an emergency text message/email to parents, students and staff during a future lockdown incident that could provide everyone with with regular updates.
Robert Nasato talked about the danger of ringing cell phones if someone with a gun had actually been stalking targets in the school. A ringing cell phone could give away the location of a hidden student or staff person to a gunman.
It was also suggested that a future discussion focusing on what was learned during this incident would be a useful exercise in terms of drafting and refining district policy and making sure that the right measures are in place.
I made note of the fact that the lockdown occurred while the students and teachers were in their classrooms. It would have been a different situation if the lockdown had occurred during the lunch hour or between classes when students and staff were in the hallways. Grant Osborne (NWTU) said that the lockdown drills they do on a regular basis at NWSS are all conducted when the students are in class and that perhaps a drill should be conducted during lunch hour conditions.
High school/middle school capital project update
John Woudzia gave an update on the high school/middle school capital project. John said the school district and the Ministry of Education were currently working toward a project agreement. Once a project agreement is concluded there will be a request for qualifications from prospective contractors and then an RFP (Request for Proposals) will be issued.
John spoke about two separate but related issues: 1) The possibility that the Tsilhqot’in Chief Ahan is buried on the high school site, a portion of which was once the Douglas Road Cemetery, and 2) the likelihood that there are other human remains on the high school site.
John said that the school district first heard about the possibility that Chief Ahan might be buried on the high school site on February 8th. John indicated that a research team from the Ministry of Education are currently doing intensive archival work in Victoria and in London, England with regard to the burial of Chief Ahan. John said they are expected to have more information about what this research has to say about the burial in about six weeks. The archival research is intended to go beyond the newspaper accounts from that time. John also noted that the research being done by the Ministry of Education is completely separate from the “historical research” done by Chuck Puchmayr which precipitated the current issue.
As for the general issue of the Douglas Road Cemetery, John noted that the cemetery had “never been properly decommissioned” and the likelihood of finding human remains on the high school site is therefore “quite high.” All human remains come under the Heritage Conservation Act and John said that all costs and issues relating to the cemetery issue “will be built into the project agreement.” John also asked that people appreciate the sensitivity of this matter and that we be as respectful to the Tsilhqot’in as we would be to a member of our own family.
I asked how large the Douglas Road Cemetery had been and where it had been located on the high school site. Larry Bryce indicated that it had extended from 10th Avenue along 8th Street to just south of Dublin Street. I asked how far east it had extended and Larry said it extended all the way to where the parking lot fence is next to the playing fields. In other words, as Larry stated, the cemetery covered essentially the same area that is now covered by the Pearson wing and its parking areas.
Larry said there could also be remains outside the boundaries of the Douglas Road Cemetery because some people were too poor to afford burial within the cemetery and would have been buried outside of it.
Preliminary Operating Budget for the 2008/09 School Year
Doug Wong the gave an overview of the school district’s preliminary operating budget for next year (the 2008/09 school year). The district is looking at a $2.795 million budget shortfall next year.
The biggest item is the loss of the Unique Geographic Features grant at $1.015 million. The New Westminster school district has been receiving this million dollar grant for several years now.
It should be noted that when the school district first started receiving this grant no one really seemed to know why, especially when no other school district in the Lower Mainland was receiving it. It was a bit of a mystery. It was then learned that the New Westminster school district was receiving this grant based (for the most part) on the fact that our elementary schools are “over capacity.” Unfortunately for the New Westminster school district, the other school districts in the Lower Mainland protested the fact that New Westminster was receiving this million dollar grant just for having portables on its school sites and the grant has therefore been eliminated and the money redistributed among all school districts in the province on a per student basis.
The school district could also have a lower K-12 enrollment next year which means as much as $439,000 less for the school district.
Likewise, the school district could have a lower Adult Education enrollment next year which could mean $409,000 less for the school district. It should be pointed out, however, that having 75 fewer K-12 students and 104 fewer Adult Education students not only means that the district would receive less funding it would also mean a corresponding reduction in staffing costs associated with those students.
Several other items also contribute to the $2.795 million total and notable among these is the “estimated loss of locally raised revenue” of $213,000 related to Smart Learning. This item generated a fair bit of discussion when committee members asked for clarification. It turns out that this “loss” is not really a loss since the $200,000+ in costs associated with raising the $213,000 will likewise not be incurred. In previous years, the school district has been hosting Smart Learning conferences to teach the Smart Learning technique to others. These conferences raised an estimated $213,000 last year, but there were also costs involved and the district only realized a very small profit from the venture.
We were also told that a hidden cost to these Smart Learning conferences had arisen and its was being borne by the students of New Westminster in terms of disruption to their classrooms from the observers who came in to watch Smart Learning in action and the need for substitute teachers so that classroom teachers could participate in the conferences etc. The fact that Susan Close has now retired, combined with the disruption and lack of monetary return to the district means that the Smart Learning conferences have now been scrapped.
I asked if these Smart Learning conferences had been conceived of as a money-making venture for the district to which Michael Ewen (trustee) said “no.” However, I seem to recall that in previous years the marketing of Smart Learning was billed as a potential revenue stream for the school district.
Doug Wong then went through some proposed adjustments to the 2008/09 preliminary operating budget based on the most up-to-date information. For example, the previously projected enrollment declines have been revised upward and virtually eliminated.
The preliminary budget must be passed by the board by June 30th and the district’s intention is to pass the preliminary 2008/09 operating budget at the May 27th open school board meeting. The staff will continue to make adjustments to the preliminary budget up until the last minute and it is important to remember that the preliminary budget is just that – a preliminary budget. It is an estimate of expenses and revenues for the next school year. The final school budget for the next school year will be based on the actual number of students who are enrolled in the school district when September arrives. The district’s final operating budget will not be passed until next spring.
Every school district is required to submit a preliminary operating budget to the Ministry of Education by June 30th of each year.
School District Business Company
Doug Wong gave an update on the business company. With two months left in the school year, Doug says Brent Atkinson is projecting a “break even or small profit” for the business company this year. Doug said the business company is expecting about $75,000 more in revenue this year and about $150,000 more in expenditures. Together with $115,524.00 that was on hand in the business company’s bank account on April 28, 2008 it means that the business company will achieve a “break even or small profit” budget for the year according to Doug Wong.
Doug reported the business company’s total revenue to April 28, 2008 as $748,154.00 against total expenditures to April 28, 2008 of $668,221.00. However, it should be noted that most of the business company’s revenue comes at the beginning of the school year in the form of tuition which then covers the business company’s staffing costs across the rest of the school year. I asked how many staff the business company currently has but Doug was not able to say with any accuracy so he agreed to supply that information to the committee in an email. An email sent the next day stated: “According to the School District No. 40 Business Company, they currently have 18 employees in total (i.e. either employees or contracted staff).”
Of course, all claims that the business company is “breaking even” must be set against the fact that the business company’s CEO is working for free. A full-time CEO for a venture like this would probably cost in excess of $100,000.00 per year which, given the figures we’ve been shown, would have yielded a considerable net loss for the business company again this year. In fact, one of my ongoing concerns is the lack of transparency and separation between the business company and the school district. There doesn’t really seem to be any clear way to determine how much of the school district’s staff time is being chewed up by the business company that is not being accounted for or “billed” for. We’ve been told that everything is being accounted for, but I continue to have serious doubts that this is true and the true cost of the business company to the school district therefore remains unclear.
And as always, Michael Ewen told the committee he is predicting a sizable profit for the business company next year. Michael asked that we not repeat the figure he cited, and I won’t… However, I’ve made note of the figure Michael quoted and I’m sure Niki Hope from the Record has also made a note of it. Suffice it to say that I remain skeptical of a clear profit next year (one that actually puts money into the school district’s pocket for the benefit of students and staff) because Michael has predicted substantial business company profits every year since the formation of the business company and none of these predictions have ever been remotely close. The business company has never posted a profit. Note: In order to have a profit your revenues must exceed your expenses…
It should also be noted that the business company is still not in full compliance with the regulations set out in the School Act. I’ve heard that the ministry of education has cut the business company considerable slack with respect to the compliance issue but full compliance is going to be expected of the business company fairly soon.
The final item on the agenda (added at the beginning of the meeting at my request) was the issue of paid fundraising for the Royal City Education Foundation. A number of issues have accumulated around the RCEF and the paid fundraiser position in the past few years and it seems timely to address these issues.
The main question that I asked was how the different streams of money being raised and flowing through the RCEF were being tracked. Unfortunately, no one seems to know the answer to this question. I asked, for example, how funds raised through the efforts of school PACs for a playground or by Community School Co-ordinators, or even by random unsolicited donation, were differentiated from funds raised through the efforts of the district’s paid fundraiser. The simple answer, I was told, was that these were not being differentiated in any way. I was rather dumbfounded by this and I asked for clarification: “So you don’t track where the money that comes into the Royal City Education Foundation is coming from in terms of who is responsible for raising funds?” No, apparently they don’t track this information….
I cited the example of a company that has several salespersons. Each salesperson’s sales are recorded and tracked and commissions paid accordingly.
I also made reference to other paid fundraisers I’ve known. Funds generated by paid fundraisers are generally tracked, and it seems to me that if the school district had three paid fundraisers the district would want to know who was generating what. But in the case of the school district and the RCEF there does not seem to be any way to know how much money is being raised directly through the efforts of the paid fundraiser versus money being raised by others. This doesn’t make any sense from an accountability perspective and there doesn’t seem to be any way to know whether the funds being raised by the paid fundraising position are more than the cost of position. It seems to me that this is very important information to have if you are going to have a paid fundraiser position.
Joanne Saville (Community Schools rep on the committee) noted that the Community School Co-ordinators often raise money that they do not get direct credit for. Everything apparently goes through the RCEF and appears as part of the global RCEF total…. Personally, I don’t think this is the way it should be done and I have some recommendations that I will be forwarding to the Superintendent very soon. In my opinion, funds flowing through the RCEF should be tracked in terms of whose efforts lead to the funds being raised.
Next Committee Meeting
The meeting of the Finance and Facilities Committee will not take place until the fall…. Stay tuned…