With a proposed mill rate increase of 8.5 per cent, the Brandon School Division may have one of the highest school property tax hikes in the province next year.
The average homeowner with a property assessed at $200,000 will fork out an extra $117 in school taxes if the proposed budget goes through as is.
Harvey Douglas, vice-president of the Western Manitoba Seniors Non-Profit Housing Co-operative Ltd., said that kind of increase will be difficult for people with low to moderate incomes.
"That’s a lot of money for a senior to make up, when they don’t have anything else other than a fixed income," Douglas said. "We’re all subject as we get older to more bills for medications and more things that happen that way, and it’s just getting tougher and tougher for the average moderate-income citizen to survive."
In Winnipeg school divisions, draft budgets call for tax increases ranging from 2.5 per cent to 6.8 per cent.
Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Nate Andrews said the local school tax increases are becoming "very unsustainable."
"There’s obviously tough decisions there that have to get made but at the end of the day, there is fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers, and at some point this just can’t continue," he said.
Looking at his own tax bill, Andrews said his business has seen a significant increase in school property taxes over the last six years.
"No matter if economic times are good or bad, you still have to pay that bill, so it’s tough on certain businesses," he said. "There’s businesses that don’t do as well as others."
Andrews said increasing property taxes are creating a housing affordability issue as well.
"That’s almost becoming like a second mortgage payment for people in a home now," he said.
Brandon school trustees spent the entire day deliberating the 2013-14 budget on Tuesday, and board chair Mark Sefton said it was a difficult process.
"It’s that constant walking on the fence … on the one side are the needs of the kids, and on the other are the concerns of the community about taxation," Sefton said.
Trustees started with $4.6 million in requests, and were able to pare it down to $2.35 million. Out of 57 staffing requests, a total of 32.2 new positions were approved, which includes 10.7 teachers, 13.2 educational assistants and 8.3 others (bus drivers, secretaries, custodial).
"We needed a 5.5 per cent increase in taxes, just to maintain the status quo," Sefton said. "While 8.5 is not a happy number for anybody… given the circumstances we’re in, we worked very hard to get there."
Eighty-five per cent of the budget goes to salaries.
One of the division’s ongoing challenges is the increasing student population. The division is projecting an increase of 280 students next year, primarily in the English as an Additional Language program.
Another challenge is preparing to meet the provincial mandate of capping kindergarten to Grade 3 classrooms at 20 students by 2017.
Sefton said they had put in 9.7 teaching positions in the budget originally for 20K3, but only approved three, as that is the amount the province will cover. The division projects it will need to hire 36 teachers to meet the mandate.
Out of the $87.2-million operating budget, $53 million is coming from the province.
Education Minister Nancy Allan wasn’t available for an interview, but a spokesperson with the province provided a statement.
"We are giving Brandon School Division the tools to keep taxes affordable while continuing to invest in the classroom," provincial spokesperson Naline Rampersad said. "We expect them to exercise restraint."
Rampersad said for the 14th consecutive year the province is increasing funding to Brandon School Division. For the second year in a row, Brandon is receiving the largest increase of any school division in the province, an increase of more than $3.2 million or 8.4 per cent.
Members of the public who would like to make a presentation to the board regarding the proposed budget are invited to the March 4 meeting at the division office at 7 p.m. The division asks members of the public to call 204-729-3114 to put their name on the speakers list.