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President of the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) Teri Mooring is interviewed during a protest at the Victoria Convention Centre in Victoria, Nov. 23, 2019.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Several school districts in B.C. are facing multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls, partly driven by a plunge in enrolment from international students because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of international students has been cut by half in several school districts, leaving them short of millions of dollars in lost revenue as they are looking at their budgets for the new school year.

Cuts to programs such as music and layoffs are on the table. Teri Mooring, president of B.C. Teachers’ Federation, called these potential impacts very concerning.

“That’s the last thing anyone needs ... It’s the last thing that the system needs is to be looking at potentially cutting jobs and programs,” she said Monday.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said the operating grants to school districts are estimated to increase by $234-million next school year. The ministry is also increasing funds to districts to support Indigenous learners and students with special needs. However, the ministry does not manage staffing and programs for districts.

For the 2020/21 year, British Columbia schools received $242-million in pandemic aid from the federal government and $45.6-million from the provincial government.

The Surrey School District – the largest and fastest-growing school district in the province – is projecting a budget shortfall of $43-million. It is directly related to the pandemic, with borders closed and a drastic reduction in immigration, the district’s spokesperson said.

“We have seen a decrease in our student enrolment numbers. We have also seen a decrease in facility rental revenue, increased costs due to blended learning and reduced enrolment of international students and related revenue,” the district’s communications manager, Ritinder Matthew, said in an e-mail.

She said Surrey schools have seen a drop of 331 international students, which has resulted in $4.55-million in lost revenue. For next year, she added, the district is estimating a further drop of 175 international students, which would be a potential further loss of $3-million in revenue. The international student fees are $15,700 per student.

Jordan Tinney, the superintendent of Surrey schools, said in a public board meeting last Wednesday that the district had projected there would be 737 more students in 2020/21, but it actually had 817 fewer students than the previous year. He later said the difference, which caused a $10.2-million loss in revenue, is majorly driven by the drop in immigration. “We saw 800 families not arrive.”

Trustee Terry Allen, who chairs the district budget committee, said at the same meeting that the board will ensure those cuts are far away from the classroom. But it “will make the cuts, and people will be laid off and jobs will be lost.”

The Greater Victoria School District has about 500 international students this year, half of the number in non-pandemic times. According to the district’s secretary-treasurer Kim Morris, that amounts to more than $2-million in lost revenue.

The district is now looking at a $7-million budget shortfall, a result of $3.5-million in lost revenue and increased expenses of $3.5-million. Ms. Morris said it is examining areas such as music programs, clerical hours and education assistants for savings.

“When you have fiscal constraints, you have to start taking a look at what is the most important and what aligns with your strategic plan, and the goals of your organization … It’s not a good-feeling budget, but it is going to be able to realign to our strategic plan,” Ms. Morris said in an interview.

In Richmond, international education net revenues decreased by $3-million compared with the year before. The city’s school district is bracing for a shortfall of $7.2-million, said spokesperson David Sadler. The district projects international students to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023/24.

The Coquitlam school district, which has one of B.C.’s largest international programs, also lost nearly half its international students amid the COVID-19 crisis. The number of international students usually hovers near 2,000, but it’s down to 1,100 this year. International education represents the second-largest revenue source for the district, accounting for 7.6 per cent of its total income in 2020/21.

The district projects a further loss of 300 international students for 2021-22, but unlike other districts, it does not have a current-year shortfall, said Coquitlam School District spokesman Ken Hoff.

“I am alarmed to see these proposed cuts. We know students are already being excluded from school,” Tracy Humphreys, chair of the BCEdAccess Society, which works on behalf of families of students with disabilities and complex learning needs, said.

“The outcry over potential cuts to a school district’s music programs alerted us that education assistants and specialist teachers supporting students with disabilities, complex learners, and other vulnerable students are also on the chopping block.”

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