Brandon School Board trustees voted to approve a 7.8 per cent increase to the division's 2013-14 budget on Monday night.
For the average homeowner with a property assessed at $200,000, the increase means they will pay an extra $107 in school taxes.
The message at the Brandon school board’s public consultation meeting was loud and clear — an 8.2 per cent increase is too much.
More than 30 people crammed into the Brandon School Division office Monday night to tell trustees that the proposed 8.2 per cent increase isn’t "sustainable."
About 10 people gave presentations, many prepared, but it might have been Shannon Alexander who summed up the temperature of the room best, speaking eloquently off the cuff.
"Perhaps we can’t afford to be everything to everybody," Alexander said. "There comes a point when people can’t afford it. I know you have to look at the students, but the other end of the coin is the taxpayer."
Alexander believes there are areas where the school division could save money and took offence to the number and quantity of additional adds that were tentatively approved by the board. During all-day budget deliberations last month, trustees started with $4.6 million in requests, and were able to pare it down to $2.35 million. A number that has since been pared down further to reach the 8.2 per cent increase.
"If I got half of my wish list, I’d be really happy," Alexander said.
As a small business owner, Alexander said "the amount of school tax I pay is exorbitant."
Several people spoke about salaries in the division, which make up 85 per cent of the total budget.
For the average homeowner with a property assessed at $200,000, the increase means they will pay an extra $113 in school taxes. The funding model, which now sees homeowners pay taxes based on a formula that applies a mill rate to the value of a property, was also questioned.
"I think the way it is funded is backwards," Alexander said. "I don’t think (the board) should be able to decide what you want and now go to the taxpayers to get it. I think it should be: here’s how many dollars you have, now how are you going to spend it."
Trustee Marty Snelling pointed out that the increase is largely due to the number of additional students the division is expecting this year. The division is preparing for a three per cent increase in enrolment and Snelling said that the province will fund 60 per cent of those new students, but that the other 40 per cent has to come from somewhere.
Alexander still believes the increase is too much and pointed to new housing as a revenue stream that isn't even being mentioned.
"I also realize all the extra building and construction in Brandon," Alexander said.
"It isn’t that you’re taking eight per cent off me, you’re getting 100 per cent of the new buildings in Brandon … so yes, the students are going up, but the tax base is also going up."
As a retired teacher, Ed Kostecki said the increase is going to mean some seniors have to choose between their home and basic essentials.
"Many seniors have to make a decision," Kostecki said. "Cut back on food, heat, light in order to pay their taxes or lose their homes."
Kostecki said he’s heard seniors so disparaged from the stress of taxes that they'd rather be in jail.
"This is shameful when we treat our criminals better than we treat our seniors," Kostecki said. "When the money well is dry or nearly dry, you have to stop spending and make due with what you have. Just spending more money on education doesn't necessarily mean you’re improving it."
Kostecki, who taught for 35 years, said in 2012 he paid almost $6,000 in property taxes, up $2,400 from what he paid nine years ago. In 2012, more than $2,600 was his portion of school taxes.
"What has happened to discipline and respect, it's certainly not where it used to be," Kostecki said.
Robert Smith said for too many years teachers have won at the bargaining table. He wants to see the division take a harder stance on salaries and benefits for teachers and employees in the school division.
"You’re failing by trying to bargain locally and it’s costing me money and I’m upset about it," said Smith, who was a trustee in the Pine Creek School Division for 20 years.
Trustee Jim Murray said that the teachers’ ability to file for arbitration really hand cuffs the board.
"One of the problems we face is that our dispute resolution mechanism with teachers is arbitration. There are no steps in between that," Murray said. "Arbitrators never take from an existing contract, they only add … They achieved that right when they gave up the right to strike."
Murray said he believes there needs to be a better mechanism for solving disputes.
"At the end of the day, if we don't negotiate our hands are tied and arbitrators don’t do any heavy lifting on their own they look around the province and see what ever one else got and that's what you're going to get," Murray said.
Board chair Mark Sefton said the board will carefully deliberate and take into account all of the presentations.
"We’re doing our best to balance the needs of the students and the concerns of the taxpayer," Sefton said. "You’re going to be in a situation where one group or the other may be quite unhappy with the decision that you make. It’s a difficult spot for us, but a job we took on willingly."
He also said the board doesn’t review the budget line by line from last year to look for efficiencies or determine how effectively the money was spent.
"It’s something we’ll look at again, but I don’t know how much it would help in an enterprise where 85 per cent of your costs are salaries and benefits," Sefton said.
As for getting tougher on salaries, Sefton said, "I think some people would like to see us break our contract and that is not something we’re going to do. We absolutely will not break the contract."