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Surrey schools avoid cuts, add staff

In what was repeatedly called a “difficult” budget by trustees, the Surrey Board of Education managed to find the dollars to add teaching staff, expand programs, upgrade some equipment and say farewell to herbicides in its preliminary operating budget for the 2008/09 school year.

School board members approved adding 17 additional teachers come fall, as well as expanding ESL (English as a Second Language), full-day kindergarten and career and trades programs, and injecting money into library technology upgrades.

The board also budgeted $292,000 for 40 more special education assistants.

Trustee Terry Allen, chair of the budget committee, said the board had “limited flexibility” this year due to factors that include slowing enrolment growth.

“The last two years there’s been enhancements and people think that’s the norm for boards,” he said “That’s not the norm.”

Delta, for example, had to cut nearly $3 million from its budget, resulting in an expected loss of more than two dozen jobs.

There was one cut provided for in the Surrey budget which no one complained about. The district is committing $195,000 to eliminate the cosmetic use of herbicides on school grounds. Surrey had cut back on its use of toxic chemicals in recent years – opting to use a hot water system instead – but couldn’t afford to cease the practice entirely. The funding will allow for a second hot water machine for weed control, and staff to use the system at all required sites.

Brenda Kent of the Surrey-White Rock Pesticide-free Coalition congratulated the board on the herbicide ban and asked for their support in encouraging municipalities of Surrey and White Rock to follow suit.

Teacher Jim McMurtry, who began the fight to eliminate use of chemicals on local school grounds more than six years ago, was pleased to see the district take a firm stance on the matter.

“It’s not just a good thing for kids, but a good thing for Surrey,” he said, noting it sets a good example for others.

Several board members said they regretted the board couldn’t respond to all the requests and concerns voiced by staff parents and students during budget consultations, but said discretionary spending was simply too tight.

“This has been a really difficult budget and we’ve been able to eke out the dollars where we can,” said Trustee Laurae McNally.

Trustee Heather Stilwell added: “With what we had to work with, we’ve done as good a job as we can.”

Secretary treasurer Wayne Noye believes future year’s budgets will continue to be a challenge.

He said Surrey continues to pay more than $10 million over what the province provides for special education funding. He also expressed ongoing concern over increasing commodity prices, such as oil and natural gas.

“If that continues it’s really going to cut into programming,” Noye said.

The per-student allocation for the upcoming school year is $5,851 – unchanged from this year.

Surrey’s $525.9 million budget includes $500 million in provincial government grants and $25.9 million in district-generated revenues. The budget is based on a projected 63,597 students filling local classrooms in the fall – an increase of about 310 from the current year.

sreynolds@surreyleader.com

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