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Sooke School District faces fiscal challenges amidst student population surge

District proposes $221.1M budget for next school year
The Sooke School District is seeing rapid growth, with an anticipated surge of 315 full-time students expected in September. Details of the 2024/25 budget were unveiled to the public on Tuesday. (Metro Creative)

To meet the needs of a growing student population and rising expenses, the Sooke School District is seeking a larger budget for the upcoming academic year.

Details of the 2024/25 budget were unveiled to the public on Tuesday, marking the first occasion for both education board members and the public to thoroughly review and discuss the budget.

The proposed budget stands at $221.1 million, representing an increase from the previous year’s $206 million.

“The meeting was very constructive,” said Harold Cull, the district’s secretary-treasurer. “We had strong participation both at the board office and online. There was productive dialogue among the board, staff, and community, addressing issues in a respectful and positive manner.”

The initial reading of the budget is scheduled for the April 30 board meeting.

According to a staff report, the district is witnessing rapid growth, with an anticipated surge of 315 full-time students in September. This surge could potentially raise the total number of students from 12,750 to 13,065, marking a 2.5 per cent increase.

Cull noted that the transition from a predominantly rural district to a more urban one also impacts the amount of funding the district receives from the provincial government.

The Ministry of Education has indicated throughout the budget development process that it is unable to accommodate inflation in the upcoming fiscal year.

“This has been a consistent practice for several years, which was manageable when inflation rates were around two per cent,” said Cull. “However, with inflation rates now significantly higher, it has become increasingly challenging to mitigate the inflationary impacts on our budget.”

Two primary drivers of inflation for the district are an estimated $1.8 million increase in employee benefits and a $600,000 rise in utility costs, driven by inflation and increased usage due to growth and demand.

To address these inflationary pressures, staff and trustees convened at a resource committee meeting in September. Proposed solutions included raising tuition fees for international students, implementing a five per cent increase in facility rental fees, and introducing a school bus fee of $300 for all riders, affecting approximately 1,200 students and generating an additional $240,000 in revenue.

The anticipated 5.2 per cent increase in gross revenue is estimated at $8.5 million, with a net revenue increase of $5.7 million. This results in a reallocation of $2.8 million to address unfunded budget pressures.

Input on addressing the estimated $2.8 million in pressures, representing 1.75 per cent of the operating cost, was sought from various stakeholders, including the Na’tsa’maht Education Council, the Sooke Parents Educational Advisory Council, employee and parent partner groups, the district leadership team, resource committee, and public partner groups through two surveys.

In the previous year, school trustees approved a $206 million budget for 2023-24, representing a $17.5 million increase over the previous budget. This increase of 9.3 per cent was primarily driven by the hiring of 57 teachers to accommodate the growth in enrolment within the district.

Board chair Amanda Dowhy was unavailable for comment.

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