Some music programs in Greater Victoria schools could be saved as School District 61 finds $1M in surplus

Some music programs in Greater Victoria schools could be saved as School District 61 finds $1M in surplus

The Greater Victoria School District is allocating nearly half a million dollars back into music programs in its proposed 2021-2022 school year budget after finding additional funds and hearing feedback from the community.

“I hear so clearly how much music education is valued in our schools and so [this] move is a real response to that public outcry, really, around preserving those programs,” said Jordan Watters, chair of the district’s board of education.

School District 61 has identified a $7-million deficit for next year, citing a revenue decrease, an increase in expenses and a lack of surplus during the current school year due to the pandemic.

In a bid to find savings, the third draft of the budget proposed cutting $1.5 million from middle school band, strings and choir, elementary strings, ukulele and fine arts across the district.

In the same draft, about $273,350 in savings would be reinvested into Grade 8 band.

READ MORE: Greater Victoria School District says proposed budget cuts the result of pandemic, increased expenses

The proposed cutbacks struck a chord in the community, and as a result, parents, staff and students across the district protested in front of schools.

“We are listening,” said Watters. “We are reading every email, we’re poring over survey results.”

In response, the trustees directed staff to take one more look at available funds.

“We [went to] all of our various departments and said, take a really close look and let’s see what you’ve got from last year that we can take back and put towards these priorities,” she explained.

READ MORE: ‘It’s everything to me’: Hundreds of Greater Victoria music students protest over program cuts

About $1.1 million in surplus from department underspends was found.

The district is proposing to put these extra funds right back into the music programs.

“We’re really happy that trustees have been listening to the thousands of parents and students and teachers who are saying don’t cut music,” said Elin Kelsey, a parent volunteer with Island Ukuleles.

The new changes will see $481,426 go back into middle school band (grade 6, 7 and 8), ukulele and Indigenous drumming. $400,000 will go towards educational assistant staffing.

Parents say this is a small victory, but the new funds don’t cover all of the cuts. Middle school strings and choir, elementary strings and district fine arts could still be silenced.

“I don’t see why they can’t find the $800,000 to finish this,” said Dan del Villano, a parent who has had two children go through the music programs. “We’re talking about a sum that is [like] 0.3 per cent of their annual budget.”

READ MORE: Greater Victoria School District proposes $1.5M in budget cuts to music programs

When it comes to the cuts, Watters said budgets require tough decisions, and this is one of them.

“There’s still some hard decisions to make,” she said. “There are still cuts that we are looking at but what we’re trying to do is make sure there’s equity across all of our middle schools and make sure we’re putting the funding where it’s going to benefit the most students.”

It never feels good when they have to make cuts, she added, because all of their programming is valuable.

For the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association (GVTA), these new changes are positive but the way they’ve been communicated has been frustrating and chaotic for staff.

“Thirty-seven teachers in the school district were told they had lost their positions and now there seems to be these series of meetings where they put back little pieces and we’re not clear what that means in staffing,” said Winona Waldron, president of the GVTA.

“We’re in a temporary situation and we shouldn’t be cutting programs — decimating programs — because of a temporary situation brought on by the pandemic,” she said.

The budget is still being fine-tuned and trustees are in the process of reviewing it. The board is expected to make a final decision on May 17.

Jasmine BalaJasmine Bala

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