“We’re going to win this one,” vows chairman: more groups attacking education funding system

The battle to change the way the province funds education will be won, vows Lorne Weiss, chairman of the Manitoba Real Estate Association’s political action committee.

“We’re going to win this one,” said Weiss, who is also a past-president of the Winnipeg Real Estate Board, which supports the elimination of funding education through property taxes.

“I’m confident because of the number of people supporting our position and the number of phone calls we’re getting.”

For example, the WREB and Winnipeg Real Estate News received an e-mail from Laura Reimer, a former school trustee and council member of the Manitoba Association of School Trustees, supporting the position of the board.

She said Winnipeg homeowners are not receiving value for their tax dollars.

“Every one of them (school trustees) promises careful use of public tax money, but the outcry at tax time is proof that the public has not had that promise upheld.

“I would suggest that you need to gain informed public momentum for change. Part of the impetus for this needs to come from the two-thirds of the school division tax base which does not have children in the schools,” she added.

The MREA and WREB are members of a coalition of 30 farm, business, non-government agencies and citizens groups, representing 200,000 Manitobans, urging the province to remove education financing from property taxes and shifting funding to general revenues.

In the meanwhile, the coalition is bracing for a new round of property tax hikes by schools boards as they prepare their budgets which must be finalized by March 15.

Already, school divisions are announcing tax increases. 

Winnipeg One, the city’s largest, is expecting an increase of about three per cent, which works out to a hike in property taxes of about $29 for the average home in the division assessed at $65,111.

St. James-Assiniboine School Division is projecting an increase of 4.63 per cent, but through some creative math says the hike will only up the tax bill on the average assessed value of a home of $88,222 in the division to $3.19. 

What the division is taking into consideration is the continuing elimination of the province’s education support levy (ESL). With the ESL going down 19.96 per cent this year, the division is jumping in to fill the void and placing that cut into its own projections.

If the ESL cut is removed from the formula, the tax hike is actually $39.30 on the average home.

Weiss said attempts by the province to eliminate their portion of the ESL from residential and farm ratepayers is another part of the same shell game when it comes to education funding, and this will not end until true reform of the funding system is undertaken.

“I think you’re going to see more attempts (by the province) to salvage their standing with taxpayers — some plums like limiting school boards’ ability to collect taxes. But in the end, it’s the education system that is going to be the victim of this.

“Our commitment is to convince the provincial government to honour their commitment to quality education and to fund it from general revenue.”

With the shift to a new funding system, the role of school boards will still be to create a budget and spend the money allocated by the province on quality education, he added.

Until that change occurs, Weiss is warning that taxpayers in Winnipeg should be preparing themselves for a substantial rate hike when the new assessments come into effect in 2006.

He predicts property tax increases by school divisions will be in multiples of what has occurred in the past “unless the province makes some significant changes to how they fund education.”

The city’s new assessment based on 2003 property values is projected to raise residential property values by over 23 per cent on average. The city is claiming it will keep any potential tax increase to a minimum by lowering the mill rate, but school divisions have made no such commitment. 

Weiss said four years ago, when the last Winnipeg property reassessment was implemented, the city lowered its mill rate, but school divisions did not reduce their mill rate to match and their side of property taxes jumped.

The result has been a steady increase in the percentage of property taxes going to divisions in relation to the city. The divisions’ share is now over 50 per cent of the total property tax bill.

He foresees a potential increase in property taxes by school divisions hitting $400 to $500 on a home assessed at a value of $125,000 in 2006.

“It will be interesting to see how the provincial government reacts to this growing sentiment for change in their new budget (on March 8),” added Weiss.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to show leadership and listen to the citizens of Manitoba.”