To Teach Their Own

Education has had to evolve during Wanda Muirhead’s thirty-five-year career with the York Region District School Board. Here she shares how she and the organization continually adjusted to serve its students.

Wanda Muirhead began as an administrative assistant in finance for the York Region District School Board in 1982. Today, she serves as coordinating superintendent, business, and chief financial officer for the region—which has grown from 42,300 students in 91 schools and a budget of $131 million when she began to 122,000 students, 207 schools and a budget of $1.35 billion in the 2015–16 academic year. She recently spoke with Advantage about challenges and changes that have occurred over the course of her nearly thirty-five-year career with the district.

Besides the size of the district, how has the educational environment changed since you began?
The demographics of our student body have changed dramatically. The number of students on the autism spectrum and other special needs is much higher and we have a significant population of newcomers to Canada. Some schools have more than fifty languages or dialects spoken. Technology, of course, is present in ways that we couldn’t have imagined thirty years ago. And all of these different elements puts pressure on finances.

What kind of pressure?
Technology demands require new infrastructure, equipment, and training. Special needs requirements call for a much higher ratio of teachers to students, and funding does not always match actual expenditures. We get $27,000 in educational assistance, but the actual cost for special needs education is more than 75 percent higher than that.

We’re fortunate that we are funded on a per student basis and, unlike some other districts, our enrollment has continued to increase. That enables us to redirect some funding from one program to another. We also have a large international student population that pays fees for their education as non-Canadian residents that help supplement budgets. There are also foundation grants awarded for everything from school operations and maintenance to transportation and ESL [English as a Second Language] programs.

You are in the process of replacing a payroll and human resources IT system that has been in place for nearly half of your career there. How difficult is that?
It’s quite complicated since the replacement is happening at the same time that we are trying to keep paying seventeen thousand people. But we’re accustomed to coordinating a lot of complex processes. For example, when it comes to financial reporting, our fiscal year runs from September 1st to August 31st, but vacation schedules are from July 1st to June 30th, and sick leave is calculated within a completely different time frame—from September through August.

We also have to be able to accommodate legislative changes that occur every January for pension, insurance plans, and income taxes, and how those apply to seven different union groups and part-time and full-time staff who all fall under different categories and contracts. One of the reasons for converting the system is that we need to have much more flexibility, accuracy, and robust reporting to help manage that kind of scheduling and complexity.

Are you coordinating other initiatives at the same time?
We have just started a three-year program to roll out mobile technology to teachers that we hope to update every three years. So many students bring their own devices that we’ve been able to redirect funding into technology for the teachers. We’re also starting a pilot program for an online engagement platform. Teachers will be able to post class assignments, marks, and other information for students and parents, and some classes will be online along with other teacher-student interactions. Administrators will also be able to access details to identify at-risk students who need extra attention.

What’s unique about being in charge of business and finance for a school district?
We don’t measure success by profit. We’re very proud that our students are achieving over and above ministry expectations and the performance of students in other districts. The hard part is sometimes having to say “no” to programs that would help support their success. But if it’s not sustainable, it’s something we can’t provide. Everyone wants more funding to do what they feel is important, but it’s very difficult to be the one who appears to be standing in the way.

Have you figured out ways to say “no” less often?
We pride ourselves on having all our academic and business people working collaboratively. Decisions aren’t made without input from all sides. We work with parents, as well as different departments. And many meetings are open to the public, so nothing happens in isolation. Since finance staff members are actively involved from the beginning, we can look at sustainability and mitigate some of the risks before decisions are made. Ultimately that makes my job a little easier.

Why have you stayed with the district for so long?
I’m committed to the organization, to the people, and to focusing on student achievement and well-being. There’s a real sense of accomplishment in doing that. It’s worth so much more than dollars and cents. And there are a lot of us who have made the same kind of commitment because we believe in what we’re doing.