After layoffs, Abbotsford school district posts huge surplus

Fraser Valley school districts posted some of their largest surpluses in 2020-21. But they took different routes to get there.

By Tyler Olsen | October 18, 2021 |6:00 am

Amid a pandemic, and after cutting dozens of jobs, the Abbotsford school district has posted its largest surplus in at least five years. The four other Fraser Valley districts also finished last year with significant surpluses, ending one of the most difficult school years in better financial shape than they started it, according to a review of financial statements by The Current.

Last year, as school districts planned for one of the most challenging years in generations, officials across the valley were left with the challenge of budgeting for new expenses (hand sanitizer, increased hygiene, online and hybrid learning programs) and uncertain revenue streams. International tuition, which contributes millions in revenue to the Abbotsford and Langley school districts, was expected to plummet. But senior levels of government had also promised tens of millions in funding to help return kids to school. That item would turn out to be key. The Mission, Langley, Chilliwack, and Fraser-Cascade districts all budgeted for more help from the provincial government to help cover increased costs.

In Langley and Chilliwack, that money helped pay for large increases to spending on classroom staffing and instruction. Abbotsford, though, forecast only a small increase in government support, while projecting a huge decline in international tuition. Those cost pressures led Abbotsford to cut dozens of jobs. Thirty full-time equivalent teacher positions were cut, as were 10 education assistant jobs, nine support staff workers and two principals. The Current reported in June that the district had some of the most-crowded classrooms in the province.

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Largest surpluses in five years

But while the Abbotsford school district received $4.6 million less revenue last year—primarily due to a decline in international-student tuition—it ended up with about $10 million more in federal and provincial COVID-related grants. That allowed the district to post its largest surplus in at least five years. Other Fraser Valley school districts also posted increased surpluses, though Abbotsford’s was the largest in the region.

The job cuts contributed to the size of Abbotsford’s surplus. The district’s total spending on instruction (which is driven largely by salaries and contracts with annual pay increases) still rose, but only by about 1%. Elsewhere, other Fraser Valley school districts significantly increased classroom spending while staying in the black. The Chilliwack, Langley, and Fraser-Cascade districts all increased their instruction spending by at least 5%, with Langley spending $11 million more on instruction than the previous year and Chilliwack spending $8 million more. Mission’s instruction spending increased by 1.7%.

Even with the windfall, the Abbotsford district’s rainy-day fund is still just shy of the target set by its accountants. But it isn’t expecting to pocket all last year’s surplus for the long-term. Abbotsford officials are budgeting to receive far less money from the federal and provincial governments next year and are again expecting a shortfall of about $1.6 million next year. The district can draw on last year’s surplus to cover that shortfall. But as last year showed, extraordinary times can prompt unexpected help from higher levels of government.

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Subscribe for free and plug in to the news that matters in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission, and the rest of the Fraser Valley.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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