As the Richmond School District is tasked to tighten its belt once more to pay for declining enrolment, wage increases and rising utility costs, one source of revenue is on a steady ascent - international education.
The district's international student population is once again expected to increase in 2014 as estimated gross revenue from foreign students reached $10 million this school year, representing five per cent of total district revenue. Last year, the district earned just over $3 million in net profits from the international education program.
And while the district contends its international education program is sustainable and well-planned, the pressure to at least maintain international student enrolment is mounting, according to the district's treasurer Mark De Mello.
"As enrolment declines we're able to bolster numbers with international students. It helps us keep our budget balanced. ...The more you can grow the international student programs and sustain them, the more you can turn that revenue into saving things that may otherwise be cut," said De Mello, noting the district's decline of 412 domestic students this year.
Al Klassen, president of the Richmond Teachers' Association, called the funding, in general, "extremely problematic" but noted Richmond has made good strides to make its program sustainable.
Richard Hudson is the district's director of the international education program and said the district is in an advantageous position compared to others in Metro Vancouver thanks to its multicultural profile.
Because of the district's high rate of English language learners the schools are set-up well to accommodate the needs of international students. Hudson has also overseen the transition of the district becoming the primary handler of homestay placements for its students. Three years ago, the service was outsourced to Langara College. Hudson said this makes communication with parents abroad easier and gives Richmond's program more credibility.
Another benefit for Richmond is that many Chinese families in the city house international students who may be relatives or family friends. This convenience is an added bonus for the program, Hudson said.
Last semester, the district's international students numbered 614, or three per cent of the overall student population. In 2009 they accounted for about 1.2 per cent. Hudson believes the September 2014 number could approach 650. Each student pays about $13,000 in tuition directly to the district.
By comparison Surrey's international student population is just 0.9 per cent, largely because it's a growing district. Vancouver stands at 1.9 per cent and has been reported to be actively expanding its international program to make up for declining enrolment. Burnaby and Coquitlam hover around three per cent.
When it comes to quality of education Klassen calls the influx of international students a "conflicting issue."
"It comes not with a cost or price necessarily but certainly with a challenge for teaching. That said, there are lots of teachers who like it. There are learning opportunities, so that's an advantage," he said.
NDP MLA and education critic Rob Flemming said Richmond could be an exception to an otherwise serious problem in the education system.
"International education programs are good but many districts have been forced to pursue this as a revenue source because the funding has failed to keep up with cost increases over the years. Many districts have fared well and Richmond is one of them," said Flemming.
But as the rate of international student revenue increases the question for school board trustee Kenny Chiu and others will be at what point is it enough.
"We have to make sure the district does not rely on the international program too much," said Chiu.
"We want to provide a good education for international students, but, at the same time, let's not kid ourselves, they do bring in extra resources for the district," he added.