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With a $9M deficit, schools have already turned down the heat. Staff warn of 'difficult decisions' ahead

The Greater Essex County District School Board offices in a 2022 file photo.  (Chris Ensing/CBC - image credit)
The Greater Essex County District School Board offices in a 2022 file photo. (Chris Ensing/CBC - image credit)

Put on a sweater and get ready to share some paper clips: As the Greater Essex County District School Board faces a $8.9-million budget deficit this year, staff warned trustees of difficult decisions ahead in a budget where staff costs make up the vast majority of costs.

Staff are looking for ways to minimize this year's budget deficit, said the board's superintendent of business and treasurer, even as trustees will have to make some hard decisions in the budget process for the 2024-25 year.

Maintenance teams have been instructed to keep the temperature two degrees cooler in the winter months, and in schools with air conditioning, to keep the school two degrees warmer in the summer, in a bid to lower the board's energy costs, Shelley Armstrong said.

"So people will need to start wearing sweaters and that's across the system," she said. "To dress appropriately as a way to try and use a little bit less energy."

The board will also implement a purchasing freeze this month, and is looking at purchasing on a "granular" level.

"Even something as simple as, we were talking today about office supplies," Armstrong said. "Every individual department is buying office supplies. Well, maybe if I need paper clips — and I'm oversimplifying this —  but maybe I should just walk upstairs and see if the academic department has it."

That's all in a bid to "slow down" the deficit, as well as change behaviour ahead of the 2024-25 school year.

Armstrong said the deficit is a result of inflation across categories of board spending.

The board can run a deficit of up to two per cent of operating allocation, to be covered by operating surplus. Armstrong says the board received that approval from the ministry in March — but it will deplete the surplus by about 30 per cent, and they won't have the same option next year.

The board will be on the hook for eliminating this year's deficit by 2025-26, and will be allowed to run a deficit of just one per cent of their operating budget. The deficit approval for this year comes with "extensive" reporting and meeting requirements," Armstrong told trustees.

Eighty per cent of the board's costs come from salary and staffing, she said, warning of "difficult decisions" in next year's budget.

"We cannot solve an $8.9-million problem through non-salary expenditures representing the 20 per cent," Armstrong said. "So we're going to have to contemplate that and make difficult decisions."

When asked about special education, Armstrong said she didn't "want to give the impression that a decision's already been made to make reductions through that area."

Energy costs to rise next year

"We have a lot, I mean a lot hundreds of unfunded positions in special education by choice as a board, and that is one of the single biggest contributors to that deficit," she said.

"Where those expenses exceed the funding that's provided by the ministry."

Before the budget discussion, trustees heard a report from Rachel Bondy, the board's energy and environmental officer, who outlined the challenges the board is facing in energy costs.

Electricity will go up seven per cent, water 10 per cent and natural gas 15 per cent, next year, Bondy said — and those are forecasts that do not include unforeseeable global or natural events that could impact costs.

President of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo says he anticipates more parents will enrol their kinds in online learning due to the growing number of cases in Ontario.
President of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo says he anticipates more parents will enrol their kinds in online learning due to the growing number of cases in Ontario.

President of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo appears in a file photo. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

Mario Spagnuolo, president of Greater Essex ETFO, says kids will take the brunt of the board's budget cuts.

"If during these budget deliberation, trustees are asked to make cuts to special education to RISE or any other service for frontline educators and students, the answer must be no," he said in a delegation to the board. "Stand up and tell the ministry cuts hurt kids.

"Let the budget process fail as our government has failed our children. We don't have a spending problem in education. We have a funding problem."