Jobs on the line as Windsor-Essex public school trustees vote on budget options

Trustees with the Greater Essex County District School Board will face a tough choice this evening, with a few budget options laid out before them as the board looks to combat a massive deficit for the coming school year.

According to a staff report, the board is facing a $6.4-million deficit for the 2024-25 school year and staff need direction to prepare the budget with a path forward.

Staff have laid out several options for trustees to consider, but recommend a middle-of-the-road approach that would see some staff positions eliminated, and the board running a deficit of about $4.5 million after saving about $1.9 million.

It will be up to trustees to endorse the option and direct staff to prepare the budget to meet these objectives.

"Administration has made all efforts to identify cost reductions within non-staffing areas," staff wrote in their report. "However, with 80 per cent of the board's expenditures being represented by salaries and benefits, together with a substantial number of unfunded positions, an in-year deficit is unavoidable without impacts to staffing."

Board could present other options to trustees

Staff write that they have already taken measures to reduce the financial burden, including reducing office supplies, textbooks and classroom expenses, reducing administration expenses, eliminating secondary school part-time aides and the central budget for student athletic transportation and adjusting the building temperatures, among other measures.

Trustees could opt to make no changes, and run the full deficit. But under the provisions of the Education Act, that comes with significant supervision and reporting requirements from the province and requires the approval of the minister of education, which could be refused.

And, it does nothing to address what staff say are "structural" issues with the board's finances. While the board has an operating surplus that could cover the deficit with no changes, the surplus would be completely drawn down by 2026-27.

Or, staff say, the board could opt to completely balance the budget, but called it an "aggressive" option requiring the elimination of 65 full-time equivalent positions.

"However, the time to make the necessary decisions to achieve the savings under this option is not optimal and may have unintended consequences on student services," according to the report. "This option is reactionary and there is no guarantee that the cost reductions would be sustainable without a more detailed review of programs and departments."

Shelley Armstrong is the superintendent of business and treasurer of the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB). She presented the budget update at a school board meeting this week.
Shelley Armstrong is the superintendent of business and treasurer of the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB). (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

With the option that staff will recommend to trustees tonight, the board will eliminate 20 full-time equivalents, saving more than $1.9 million. It means the board's deficit will be equal to one per cent of its operating expenses, a deficit allowed and not requiring approval from the minister of education, though it would require a plan showing how the board plans to eliminate the deficit over two years.

Recommended option will cut equivalent of 20 staff

It means cutting the equivalent of 20 full-time jobs, including four social workers, five student support workers, a psychologist, two non-unionized employees and a school support technician, along with portions of FTEs in other positions.

The majority of the positions are unfunded by the ministry, staff noted.

"While this option results in an in-year deficit being reported for 2024-25, it demonstrates to the ministry the board's commitment to reduce its expenditures," staff wrote.

"While this option does not address the structural nature of the board's deficit, it does provide administration additional time to examine the data across all programs and departments and to provide more fulsome recommendations for implementation in 2026-27 and future years to address the long-term financial sustainability of the board."

In April, staff warned trustees that tough decisions were ahead and said they were already trying to minimize budget impacts by keeping schools a little warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter, as well as by sharing office supplies. In May, they warned trustees the deficit for the 2023-24 school year is nearly $9 million.

Staff have said declining enrolment, as well as inflationary pressures, are among the reasons for the deficit.

Trustees will consider the options at Wednesday night's board meeting, with the public session beginning at 7 p.m. It is streamed live on the board's YouTube channel.