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Class warfare: Divisions flout NDP's edict to hold line on school taxes

Less than two months after the province told trustees they already have the money they need to provide a quality education, division after division is defying the minister.

MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Less than two months after the province told trustees they already have the money they need to provide a quality education, division after division is defying the minister.

Manitoba's school trustees are openly defying Education Minister James Allum -- school property taxes are going up across the province.

Less than two months after Allum told trustees they already have the money they need to provide a quality education, division after division is defying the minister.

From 1.54 per cent in Birtle-based Park West School Division, to 6.84 per cent in Stonewall-based Interlake S.D., taxes are going up. Avoiding cuts would have required a 10.78 per cent school tax increase in Stonewall and area, Interlake board chairman Alan Campbell said Friday.

Saturday was the deadline for school divisions to submit mill rates to the local municipality.

"If anyone says the increased funding from the provincial grant is enough to do what we were doing the year before without raising taxes... we have to raise taxes to do what we did before," said Pembina Trails secretary-treasurer Craig Stahlke.

Taxes on typical houses are increasing $42.88 in Brandon, $24.25 in Carman, $35 in Morden, $82 in Pembina Trails.

Allum is not a happy camper.

"Do I think they could have held down taxes across the board? Yes, I certainly do," Allum said Friday. "I am concerned -- I believe the school system is well funded to date."

Allum said he's not considering capping school taxes, but, "We will continue to work with school divisions so that resources go into the classroom, not the boardroom."

Allum emphasized repeatedly he wants trustees to spend their money on teachers, reading and math, not on administration.

The government has given school divisions a two per cent increase in operating grants of $24.4 million.

Big bucks, yet the money barely covers one-third of the annual increase in the cost of running the $2.1-billion public school system. And much of that $24.4 million is intended to boost vocational training, career planning and job preparation, instead of going to day-to-day operating costs. And the government has directed divisions to provide smaller class sizes.

Allum's confusing, complex, convoluted and confounding funding formula gave a zero increase in 2013-14 to 18 of the 37 divisions, along with a pittance to several others. In the city, only Winnipeg and Seven Oaks received more provincial money than last year.

In Stonewall, Interlake S.D. hasn't qualified for an operating grant increase for the last three years, while its costs inexorably grew.

Brandon is one of a very few divisions with increased enrolment, yet it's dropping 11 high school teaching positions just to come in at a 2.9 per cent tax increase, said board chairman Mark Sefton.

Teachers are the elephant in the room. Their salaries are the largest single cost in a budget, and this year every contract expires June 30, so trustees are stashing money away for a pay raise and increased benefits yet to be negotiated, knowing eventually they'll have to come up with higher pay retroactive to July 1, 2014.

This is happening in a province that proclaims it has an equitable public school system, yet bases the money available to provide a quality education on the vagaries of the assessed values of properties within a school division.

So Virden-based Fort la Bosse has a 9.8 mill rate thanks to the oil patch, and Kelsey S.D. in The Pas has a 23.04 mill rate.

Said Kelsey school board chairman Vaughn Wadelius: "As we are the lowest assessed school division in Manitoba, our local resources are very limited."

Pembina Trails has the lowest mill rate in Winnipeg, thanks in part to having an average home assessment valued at $372,000, while IKEA and its adjacent retail development pay seven-figure tax bills to help take the burden off homeowners.

As he does every year, Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O'Leary pointed to his division's anomalous highest mill rate in the city, combined with spending less per student than the provincial average.

O'Leary lamented that Seven Oaks has virtually no commercial assessment, while Pembina Trails and St. James-Assiniboia enjoy lofty business tax bills they don't have to share: "They (Pembina Trails) do outspend us $1,000 a pupil," said O'Leary.

Higher mill rate, lower spending -- counterintuitive in an equitable system.

Next year, Seven Oaks will open a new school in Amber Trails. The province pays the entire cost of building the school, but, said O'Leary, while the students will transfer from existing schools -- with some of their teachers moving with them -- the new school still needs resource teachers, its own support staff, its own equipment. Right there, that's a 1.26 per cent increase in the division's operating budget to pay for what everyone considers a positive development.

Down the road in Pembina Trails, Stahlke and superintendent Ted Fransen argue they can't provide a quality education on just Allum's money.

Take the province's plan to cap kindergarten to Grade 3 classrooms at 20 students by 2017, Fransen said. The province pays the capital costs of additional classroom space and $60,000 each for the additional teachers.

"There are real costs associated with 20 K-3," Fransen said. "The province funds the classroom teacher with the assumption they're not earning more than $60,000 a year."

Only beginner teachers without much experience earn that kind of money, benefits, and increments, he said. Most teachers earn far more: "They're only funding three-quarters of the average classroom teacher."

The class-size program does not recognize more classrooms mean schools need more specialized staff: "The funding does not include money for phys ed and music," Fransen said.

Then there are costs that would occur to few parents, Fransen said.

Non-teaching staff is paid by the hour, and the next school year has three more days than this year because Labour Day falls early in the month, on Sept. 1: "It's a fact -- three extra days of school for 600 employees."

Park West school board chairman Donald Cochrane said rural divisions must spend money to compete with urban schools for quality teachers and administrators: "Quality people are required to deliver quality programs."

Said Beausejour-based Sunrise school board chairman Don Nichol: "To provide quality education without increasing property taxes will be difficult to do. We are looking at all avenues to keep the increase as low as possible and at the same time provide quality education."

 

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, March 17, 2014 at 10:37 AM CDT:
Fixes box, adds chart.

Updated on Monday, March 17, 2014 at 10:56 AM CDT:
Clarifies reference to Labour Day.

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