“Do I think they could have held down taxes across the board? Yes, I certainly do. I am concerned — I believe the school system is well funded to date.”
— Education Minister James Allum
In recent days, Education Minister James Allum has been loudly proclaiming that school divisions, and by extension education, are well funded in this province.
This in spite of the fact that divisions, both urban and rural, have been openly defying Allum’s decree to hold the line on taxes, which he apparently made two months ago, according to a Winnipeg Free Press report.
Consider these numbers from Westman school divisions:
In Birtle, Park West School Division has called for a 1.54 per cent tax increase. Turtle Mountain School Division trustees proposed a 5.8 per cent special levy tax increase. In the Southwest Horizon School Division, trustees are proposing a 3.57 per cent increase. The Rolling River School Division voted for a 3.5 per cent increase. And Beautiful Plains School Division has proposed a 4.3 per cent hike.
Most of these tax hikes make Brandon’s “hold the line” budget and 2.9 per cent tax increase look paltry by comparison.
Why are all these school divisions raising taxes? There are several reasons, and some that differ according to the needs of local schools. But a few consistent themes continue to ring true:
• Teacher and staff salaries and benefits are rising too high, too quickly, for school divisions to keep pace. In Brandon School Division, salaries account for 85 per cent of the overall budget.
• The province does not adequately fund school divisions, in spite of Allum’s assertion that divisions were given a two per cent increase in operating grants, equal to $24.4 million for the upcoming school year.
• And the province’s mandated kindergarten to Grade 3 class size cap has needlessly forced school divisions to increase teaching staff and in some cases add bricks and mortar, without fully funding the required changes.
In the Brandon School Division’s case specifically, we happen to think that Allum is a bit out of touch with reality. Last week, Allum gave an interview to CBC radio, in which he accused the BSD of unnecessarily cutting 11 teaching positions because the division is “well funded.”
But when asked where the division could have cut to prevent cutting teaching positions, the minister provided a generalized answer, saying that he had asked school boards across the province to “look at a variety of things ...” including “administrative reductions” to ensure that money goes into classrooms, not boardrooms.
That part is actually true. Last January, Allum sent a letter to all school divisions informing them that administrative spending would be capped as a proportion of a division’s total operating expenses, to the tune of 4.5 per cent.
Ironically, the Brandon School Division has consistently ranked among the lowest divisions in the province for administrative costs — which is also quite surprising given the size of the division. According to the provincial government’s own Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education (FRAME) report for the 2013-14 school year, Brandon spent $2,732,600 on administration costs, which comes in at 3.2 per cent of the division’s total operating expenses.
Yesterday, BSD board chair Mark Sefton told the Sun that administration costs include the salaries for approximately 29.04 staff positions in the division’s two offices.
“Only four divisions out of 38 in the province spend less,” Sefton said.
When asked his thoughts regarding the large number of tax increases this year in Manitoba school divisions, Sefton didn’t mince words.
“That’s an indication that school divisions don’t believe they have the funding in place to meet the needs of the students and freeze taxes.”
In spite of all his complaining, though, Allum says he is not considering capping school taxes. In our opinion, if Allum truly believes that school divisions can hold the line on taxes and keep all teachers in place based on the current funding model, then he should have enacted such a cap.
Or the province should abolish school boards, and take direct control of education funding itself. But this NDP government won’t, because school boards are obviously convenient political whipping posts.