Candidate’s campaign calls for end to division’s taxation powers

For the first time in Manitoba’s history, a school trustee candidate is running a campaign calling for 100-per-cent funding of education by the provincial government.

Lorne Weiss, chair of the Manitoba Real Estate Association’s political action committee and a past-president of WinnipegREALTORS®, called Winnipeg School Division candidate Colin Fast’s campaign groundbreaking.

“It’s extremely timely as Winnipeg School Division has just announced it’s going to increase school taxes by two per cent,” he added.

Both MREA and WinnipegREALTORS® are members of a coalition of Manitobans calling for the reform of the education funding system.

The coalition of organizations and citizens, representing about 250,000 Manitobans, wants school divisions’ ability to fund education through property taxes eliminated with the province picking up the tab.

The province now funds from between 65 to 70 per cent of education— the percentage varies depending upon whom is asked — and is phasing in 80 per cent funding of education. The remainder will still come from school divisions taxing property owners.

The coalition said education is a societal benefit and should be funded in the same way as health care through provincial general  revenues.

“Most Manitobans have no idea who their school trustees are or what decisions they’re making,” Fast wrote to media outlets. “That’s why my proposal to move to 100 per cent provincial funding would actually enhance accountability, with the education minister and premier having to answer to the public on the issue.

“It would also address the inequity of our current system, which requires homeowners and businesses in the Winnipeg School Division to pay property taxes that are up to 70 per cent higher than in other divisions.”

Weiss said members of the two Manitoba REALTOR® associations also support Fast’s call for further amalgamation of Winnipeg’s six school divisions. “How many school divisions and trustees are needed in Winnipeg?” asked Weiss. “There are now 54 trustees representing six school divisions and for all of Winnipeg there are only 15 city councillors.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear as the divisions continue to hike taxes,  despite receiving increased funding from the province, that they cannot deliver balanced budgets. Maybe the school divisions in Winnipeg should look at some of their duplications in services,” Weiss added.

Weiss said Winnipeg School Division is claiming costs have risen when school enrollment continues to drop — a trend experienced in the majority of Manitoba’s school divisions. 

Weiss wondered why “costs have gone up in Winnipeg School Division but enrollment is down 700 students.” 

Six of province’s eight largest school divisions are rejecting Education Minister Peter Bjornson’s tax incentive grant (TIG) to freeze school property taxes and are instead increasing taxes. The hikes range from an average $25.11 cost to the owner of a $100,000 home in Winnipeg School Division to a $98 increase in Steinbach.

Premier Gary Doer told CJOB radio during an interview that school divisions should be using the $60 million they have in reserve to maintain a property tax freeze.

“All of us have to be sensitive to affordability in a tough year,” he said on an early morning radio show.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Peter Bjornson told the media he is waiting to see how the school’s budgets unfold before challenging their tax increases.

The province has the right to reject or accept a school board’s budget, but it cannot mandate a tax freeze unless the legislation covering education is changed.

At Evergreen School Division, the school board which is based in Gimli has accepted the province’s TIG and will freeze property taxes in its budget.

But most urban school divisions claim accepting the province’s TIG is not sufficient to freeze property taxes and maintain programs. River East said in order to qualify for a $687,172 TIG and freeze taxes, the division would have to cut $1.8 million from its spending estimates.

“It’s apparent the school divisions are not listening to the education minister,’ said Weiss. “So he should take a serious look at how education is funded in Manitoba.

“Meanwhile, we’re letting our members know if they live in Winnipeg School Division and are eligible to vote that there is a candidate supportive of their position,” he added.

The Winnipeg School Division board of trustees election is scheduled for Tuesday, March 17.