Education funding shell game

As highlighted in a WREN front page story last week, a candidate running for school trustee in the 

Winnipeg School Division election on March 17 is proposing that the province take over full responsibility for funding education. Colin Fast attracted the media’s attention with his call to change the education funding status quo. He recognizes some school boards continue to hike property taxes despite increased provincial education funding designed to encourage school 

divisions to hold the line.

Due to all the provincially-mandated requirements attached to school division operating budgets, lay people are invariably overwhelmed when education funding discussions arise. There is also the matter of the varying ability of school divisions to raise money as a result of differing property assessment bases in their catchment areas and differences in student enrollments. Adding to the complexity is the new Tax Incentive Grant (TIG) program implemented to encourage school divisions to freeze education taxes levied on property.

WinnipegREALTORS® has been an active member of an education finance coalition seeking to reform education funding. As a core provincial responsibility similar to health care in its importance, the coalition contends education should be funded through general revenues. Property owners should not continue to add to education funding, according to the coalition. 

Despite the province’s efforts to control the impact of increases in the costs of education on property owners, some school divisions are again rejecting the province’s TIG and asking their ratepayers to pay more school taxes. Accepting the TIG could entail making uncomfortable budget cuts, according to trustees reluctant to go along with the grant.

A key question needs to be asked: When will this annual bickering between the province and school boards end to the benefit of taxpayers? 

In the meantime, property owners continue paying more out of their pocket for a provincial core service. 

The province once and for all should recognize the current system is broken and initiate effective and efficient measures to reform the system. 

However, last year, provincial legislation was passed to place a moratorium on any school closings. With school enrollments declining, school divisions such as St. James-Assiniboia and Louis Riel both proposed closures of under-utilized schools, saying programming could actually be enhanced when students are relocated. Now, the closures cannot happen.

Michael Zwaagstra, a Manitoba teacher  with a Masters in Educational Administration, said in a recent brief for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy: “A provincial moratorium on school closures is not a viable approach to the problem of declining student enrollment. It forces shrinking schools to remain open, costs taxpayers extra money, limits programming options available to students, and fails to take the wishes of parents into account. Moreover, it serves to further undermine the ability of local trustees and school administrators to exercise meaningful authority over schools under their jurisdiction.”

Premier Doer continues to say education is a top priority. If so, should he not be taking taxpayers and property owners more seriously in addressing their legitimate concerns about the escalating cost of delivering education in this province? 

When does it stop? How can school costs go up so much when enrollments are declining? 

Judging from the annual tax increases by school boards — despite continued provincial funding 

increases — there never seems to be enough money to meet divisions’ budget requirements.

Winnipeg School Division trustee candidate Colin Fast made a valid point when he told the media: “Most Manitobans have no idea who their school trustees are or what decisions they’re making. 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.”

As Winnipeg city council learned some time ago, Winnipeggers do have a breaking point with regard to rising property taxes. The sooner the province and school boards realize a similar breaking point is fast approaching with regard to property taxes funding education, the better off everyone will be. 

Let’s seriously consider a more effective education finance funding model — one in which increased education costs are not off-loaded onto property owners by the province and/or school boards. The status quo is clearly not working, so it needs to be changed!