Brandon School Division board chair Mark Sefton has been roundly mocked on social media this week for saying on Monday that the division is looking at a $90-million “hold-the-line” budget for the 2014-15 school year.
And with the preliminary budget calling for an increase of $3.6 million over last year, he obviously understands why.
But perhaps Sefton can be granted a little poetic licence with his use of the term “hold-the-line,” as the board seems to have listened to the concerns of taxpayers this time out.
As the Sun reported on Tuesday, normally at this time of year there are many budget enhancements and requests coming forward. Last year, there were more than 30 requests for additions, which raised the ire of many ratepayers when a good portion of those requests were voted by the board into the budget.
This year, there are no additional funding requests. There are also no plans for any staff increases, and no additional programs or additions to existing programs for the upcoming budget.
“Our staffing projections as of now ... for next year are exactly the same as for this year,” Sefton told the Sun. “We’re trying to hold the line on staffing, we’re not adding any new programs and we’re not adding to any existing programs.”
The added $3.6-million budget line, Sefton says, is due to inflation, the PST increase on supplies and services, enrolment growth and contracted salary provisions and staff benefits that the division must abide by.
And unfortunately, much like the City of Brandon’s out-of-control salary contracts, teacher salaries are hiking ever skyward.
As we have written before on this page, school divisions across the province are at the mercy of arbitrators when it comes to teacher salaries. It’s either negotiation or binding arbitration for teachers, who don’t have the right to strike in Manitoba. As a result, salary costs — which make up more than 85 per cent of the division’s budget — continually go up as arbitrators look around the province and see what everyone else gets.
Along with those collective agreement settlements, however, Sefton pointed to an increase in sick leave costs across the division. That increase, he says, is due in part to the age of teachers and other staff employed within the division.
There’s generational divide among teaching staff — either staff are edging toward retirement years and facing increasing health issues or they are relatively young and starting families of their own. Not only does age and job seniority affect wage levels, health issues and family issues can prompt an increase in sick leave levels among employees of any organization.
While the majority of teachers’ sick days are legit, there’s always a few bad apples who decide to use their sick time to enjoy an extended weekend or two in a month, which Sefton said is an “immense irritation” to those who take the job seriously. And the costs of hiring day replacements adds up too.
But the $3.6 million may still be whittled down to a smaller increase — or no increase at all. That will be dependent upon the upcoming provincial funding announcement, which is expected to come on Jan. 30 or 31, following the Arthur-Virden byelection.
As well, the board is still waiting for assessment data from seven municipalities that, at least in part, fall within the school division boundaries.
“When we have zero assessment data, we’re fumbling in the dark,” Sefton said.
Brandonites are about taxed out, and we’re pleased to see that our school board trustees have recognized that fact. We can cut them a little slack in terms of criticism.
The real problem lies with this provincial NDP government, which has given unions far too much power when it comes to negotiated settlements under the Labour Relations Act.
Negotiations are basically meaningless when unions know they can simply hold out for arbitration to get what they want.
We suggest taxpayers target their ire in that direction.