VICTORIA -- As a result of lower student enrolment and a drastically reduced surplus, the Greater Victoria School District (SD61) is facing a $7-million budget deficit for the 2020-2021 year.

For almost two decades, SD61 has depended on underspending on its operations and programs to balance its budget. It says it has used between $3-million and $10-million to balance the budget since 2013. The school district says it relies on a budget surplus accumulated during the current year to balance the budget of the following year.

“That’s great when enrolment is growing and you can find some of those efficiencies and you have those big carry-forwards every year,” said SD61 secretary treasurer Kim Morris on Monday. “This year with COVID we have an enrolment decline and so the surplus just isn’t projected to be eight or 10 or $17-million like it was last year.”

The surplus for the 2020-2021 budget is projected to be $3.7-million. The district has also experienced a further drop in enrolment of 30 students this year, resulting a total enrolment decline of 330 students.

“Our revenues have also gone down by about $3.5-million and that’s everything from rentals to interest rates to international enrolment,” said Morris. “Our expenses have been increasing because we have a collective agreement lift this year and the operating grant from the ministry didn’t cover that 100 per cent as it did last year.”

Morris says the proposed budget deficit of $7-million is a result of a combination of factors, such as a reduced surplus, reduced enrolment and decreased revenues.

Morris says the district has looked at alternate funding sources, like capital funding with the B.C. Education Ministry to invest in improvements to its shops programs. She says they have also tried to boost funding for student councillors by moving them out of the operating grant to the community link grant.

“We’ve looked at how we can reduce management staff and other replacement costs,” said Morris. “We’ve really tried to look at every facet of our operation.”

Morris admits that anywhere the district is considering a reduction to save costs and balance the budget will affect students.

“Whether we reduce here (at the district office) or we reduce at our facilities branch, it's a delicate balance,” said Morris. “We have to be careful of any unintended consequences when looking at anything that we are reducing because the system is dependent on every facet and every department.”

The need to minimize the impact to students is a responsibility that weighs heavy on the SD61 board of education chair.

“Trustees are going to have to fully and thoughtfully engage in examining this budget proposal,” said board of education chair Jordan Watters. “We have to look at what those impacts mean for our schools on the ground and consider all the possibilities and opportunities for us moving forward.”

Watters says the board of education will get its first look at the proposed budget at its meeting on April 13. She says there are another five board meetings scheduled leading up to the budget vote on May 31.

“It's really important for the public to understand that no decisions have been made at this time,” said Watters. “We are thoughtfully looking at all the options and trying to understand those impacts.”

Watters says there will be lots of opportunities for parents and students to provide input as the board proceeds with the budget process.

“We really want to hear from them because it helps us make better decisions,” said Watters. “There is no magic wand in this and hard decisions are going to be made. The question is, what hard decisions? Because it is a process that we have to dig into and do our best to find our way to some good decisions.”

Further information on the Greater Victoria School District's budget process can be found here