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Through the mill: Are school taxes the best way to finance education?

Posted: 03/16/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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How much does it cost to educate a child in a Manitoba public school?

It seems a simple enough question — we’re supposed to have an equitable system in which every child receives a quality public education.

You could probably say it may take a little more to educate a high school student than an elementary school child, given the diversity of courses, one-subject teachers, and the need for more specialized labs and shops, and it figures that a rural division paying for a lot of busing would spend a little more than a city division.

But it should be pretty much the same across Manitoba, right?

No way.

While Manitoba superficially has a public education system based on a quality education for every child, it’s a system crucially financed on the basis of the assessed value of properties within a school division whose boundaries are drawn on an arbitrary basis.

The lowest mill rate is in Gimli-based Evergreen School Division, and the highest mill rate is in Kelsey SD in The Pas, yet Evergreen spends well above the provincial average per student and $1,166 more per child than does Kelsey, thanks to a rich assessment base.

Is that the way we should be financing our children’s education?

And even more significantly than just the size of the assessment base, how large or small a commercial base there is within that school division is startlingly significant — the smaller the commercial base, the greater the share of the burden of financing the school system a homeowner must bear.

That’s why, even though Winnipeg SD has the highest mill rate in the city, by, as Jeff Stoughton would say, only a hair more than Seven Oaks SD, homeowners’ taxes would be far higher were it not for all those office towers downtown and the Polo Park and Grant Park malls.

And finally, the amount spent on a child’s education ultimately comes down to how much school trustees believe their residents are willing to pay in school taxes.

The highest percentage tax increases this year will be Brandon’s 7.8 per cent, Garden Valley’s 7.3 per cent — where startup costs for Winkler’s new high school are hammering taxpayers for more than $2 million — and Winnipeg’s 6.7 per cent.

Is this the way we should be financing our children’s education?

Divisions spend $9,000 to $14,000 per student

WSD finance chair Cathy Collins lamented that trustees spent an inordinate amount of time trying to shave or add virtual nickels and dimes to a $365 million budget. They’re paying $57,000 to buy and licence software for improved math education for almost 34,000 students, they’re considering staggered bell times so WSD can run fewer buses but on multiple routes, they’re subsidizing milk at a price of 10 cents a carton for school lunches.

"The reality is, the big ticket items are salaries," and those affect the quality of education directly, Collins said.

It costs an average of $11,473 this 2012-2013 school year to educate Manitoba children, but that ranges from $9,097 in Steinbach-area Hanover SD and $9,259 in Winkler-area Garden Valley SD, to $17,526 in Frontier SD, $13,993 in the Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine and $13,675 in Thompson-Based Mystery Lake SD.

There are 14 of 37 divisions below the provincial average on per-student spending, including all seven Winnipeg divisions.

To further numb your mind with numbers, Seven Oaks gets hammered for its high taxes, but it spends $963 less per child than does St. James-Assiniboia, whose commercial assessment base is more than four times as large. Seven Oaks can’t afford to put any more load on homeowners.

St. James-Assiniboia, not to be outdone, argues that the province provides Seven Oaks with $1,969 per child more in equalization payments than it does to SJA.

Can you follow all that? Is this the way we should be funding children’s public education?

Education Minister Nancy Allan once again this year increased the province’s share of funding the $2.026-billion public education system at or above the growth in the provincial economy. She gave school divisions a 2.3 per cent increase in operating grants, or $27.2 million.

Allan also guaranteed that every division would get at least as much as last year — without that guarantee, 16 divisions would have received less money this year.

That $27.2 million still left about $40 million in normal annual spending increases to be covered by taxes, or to be achieved by cuts to jobs, programs, and services. Hands up any parents in favour of the latter option?

Consider the bizarre situation in Virden-based Fort la Bosse SD, where the provincial grant and equalization payment increases are both zero, spending will go up 4.6 per cent, yet property owners will barely be affected on their tax bills.

This is because of a huge jump of 6.5 per cent in the division’s assessment base, thanks to the oil industry, explained Fort la Bosse secretary-treasurer Kent Reid.

"Most of our assessment increase here is due to the oil activity. (It) will affect residential very little, and actually, on average, our farmland education taxes will go down," Reid said.

Is this the way to finance a public education system?

Higher enrolment, no funding increase

Louis Riel superintendent Duane Brothers is still trying to figure out how his division could increase enrolment — the most significant criterion in establishing provincial operating grants — yet get not a penny more than it received a year ago.

"We are having some significant immigration," as well as a steady stream of families moving into the massive Sage Creek development, Brothers said. "There are probably 300 students out of Sage Creek attending our schools."

McCreary-based Turtle River SD remains the only school division in Manitoba with fewer than 1,000 students, having dropped three students to 740. With an increase in assessment allowing Turtle River to maintain last year’s mill rate, and thus hold any tax increase to minimal levels, the division said on its website that it plans to implement full-day kindergarten. Division officials did not respond to numerous interview requests.

Not a single school division anywhere in Manitoba appears to have an outright tax freeze — though Mystery Lake, Flin Flon, Fort la Bosse, Turtle River and Sunrise say they’re close.
Brandon school trustees increased school property taxes 7.8 per cent, the highest jump anywhere in Manitoba.

Already faced with the costs of serving a huge increase in enrolment, Brandon wants to hire more educational assistants, expand its full-day kindergarten, and implement strong new security measures for its high schools, all of which cost "big bucks," school board chair Mark Sefton said.

Brandon SD has had an additional 60 students arrive during this school year.

"We’re over 8,000 students now — we’re growing like crazy," Sefton said. "We’re forecasting another three per cent" enrolment jump in September.

While per-student grants are a key criterion in funding, there’s no way they cover all higher costs, Sefton said.

"We get about 61 per cent of our funding from the province," he said. "Our funding per-student is the fourth-lowest in the province. Every new student, it means $3,900 is coming from local taxpayers."

Many of the immigrant families coming to Brandon schools have two to four children, so while they’re adding more than one child to the overall education costs, each of those families is only paying one property tax bill, Sefton said.

And then there’s a change in security that would see BSD introduce a card access system to every outside door in its high schools.

"It’ll enable us to do a more secure lockdown," he said. "It would be the main doors on magnetic switches, with key card access. It’s big bucks, but it seemed reasonable to use."

Four Brandon schools already have full-day daily kindergarten, even though the provincial grants only cover half-day kindergarten costs.

"We did expand that to George Fitton School. That’s totally a local initiative — there’s no provincial support, it’s on us," Sefton said. "We believe in it strongly. We’re hoping that will be the equalizer for the kids — that’s another big ticket item.

"We’re seeing some pretty amazing results," with full-day kindergarten students reaching June reading levels by January, Sefton said.

"It’s inner city schools," Sefton said. That’s where early development can help many kids from difficult socioeconomics make up ground, he said.

Out in the Russell area, Park West SD will go with half-day kindergarten in the fall, but switch to full-day kindergarten in the second semester next year, said superintendent Tim Mendel.

"The rationale for starting the full-day kindergarten pilot may be coalesced into one simple statement: the more time children spend in school with qualified educators in quality educational programs, then the more they will learn," Mendel said.

"Current research clearly demonstrates that full-day kindergarten programs contribute to school readiness, improved literacy achievement in higher grades, the gap in achievement levels for lower socio-economic status students, improved retention rates, and better integration of students into the school community," he said.

But any division going to full-day kindergarten will have to carry the teacher’s salary and every other penny of that additional half-day.

And we ask again, is all of this the way that we should be financing public education in Manitoba?

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Breaking it down

How do I figure out my tax bill before it comes in the mail?

If you live in Winnipeg, use our handy calculator to find out what size bill you can expect to receive in the mail this spring.  Just select your school division and enter your school division (and frontage, optional) to get the gist of your coming pain.

Note that this calculator is for estimation purposes only. Your actual tax bill may vary, and may include additional charges or credits.

 

Prefer to do your work by hand?

You’ll need your assessment notice, or find out your (Winnipeg) home's assessed value here.

Multiply the assessed value of your house by 0.45 — this is called portioning. Taxes are calculated at 45 per cent of assessed value for homes, 65 per cent for businesses. Multiply this figure by the mill rate for your school division, then divide by 1,000. That will give you your school property taxes.

Then multiply that portioned assessed value by the municipal mill rate — in Winnipeg, it’s 14.6 — and divide by 1,000, to get your municipal property taxes. Add the two figures. Feel free to shriek.

Finally, deduct $700 from your tax bill; this is the education property tax credit, money the province provides to soften the blow of tax bills, and which it labels education funding, though nary a single penny of it gets spent on education. It was simply a property tax credit until seven years ago, when the NDP decided it was politically expedient to lump it in as part of education funding.

What’s a mill rate?

That’s a key figure used to calculate how much tax you’ll pay. Simplistically, without all the little details that will make your brain hurt, it’s the product of dividing the amount of money the trustees wish to raise through school property taxes by the total assessment base of the school division, then fiddling with where the decimal point goes.

IN DEPTH: City school-division funding

River East Transcona School Division

Enrolment: 16,361 (+39)
Spending per student: $10,454
Mill rate: 14.65

)More than a decade after amalgamation, the Transcona high schools have grades 9 to 12, and the River East high schools still have grades 10 to 12.

Despite plans for subdivision development, most of the division’s growth has been north of the Perimeter. Enrolment has stabilized this year, but that’s only after a steady decline in the province’s second-largest division.

RET planned to close two small elementary schools, until the province imposed its moratorium on school closings in 2008. Those small schools are still small.

With a net gain of 226 schools of choice students, RET has the biggest net benefit of students’ ability to move freely from division to division. Many come for French language education or vocational, and there is also movement from the small Elmwood pocket of Winnipeg SD that lies east of the Red River.

The division has a strong Ukrainian language program, and a strong German program.

But those days of being far and away the second-largest division in the province appear to be becoming just the biggest of the middle-of-the-pack divisions.

Louis Riel School Division

Enrolment: 14,288 (+19)
Spending per student: $10,974
Mill rate: 13.286

Slowly, inexorably, the province’s third-largest division watched the gap close, and this year finally moved below St. James-Assiniboia SD and can now boast the second-lowest mill rate in Winnipeg, just above Pembina Trails, the division that LRSD most resembles.

The division has started bouncing back after years of declining enrolment, gaining 19 this year, thanks primarily to immigration and to 300-and-counting families rapidly moving into the Sage Creek development.

Still, LRSD was poised to close as many as four schools when the moratorium came down in 2008, and only Archwood School is showing signs of getting off that list — thanks to new housing on Dugald Road.

The numbers are falling at Dakota and Glenlawn collegiates, after an intial surge when they absorbed the Grade 9s from the last of the old K-9 schools in St. Vital.

LRSD has the second-largest overall net loss anywhere of students through schools of choice, a loss division officials have a tough time explaining, since other city divisions attract students from outlying rural areas looking for French, vocational, or other programs.

Louis Riel is second only to Winnipeg SD in its outspoken and proactive efforts on issues of sexual orientation and gender idenity, championed by recetly-retired superintendent Terry Borys with the full backing of the board.

Pembina Trails School Division

Enrolment: 12,691 (+7)
Spending per student: $11,256
Mill rate: 13.106

Yes, that’s the city’s lowest mill rate.

The amount raised through property taxes has gone up 6.4 per cent, but taxes are up only 2.5 per cent, which means that, under the province’s confusing, complex, and convoluted funding formula, Pembina Trails has enjoyed another good year of a higher assessment base.

Already enjoying the city’s highest assessment per student, Pembina Trails will get an enormous windfall from IKEA and The Seasons of Tuxedo — several millions of dollars a year in property taxes without adding a single child to the costs of public education.

In fact, enrolment is going in the opposite direction, down almost 1,500 students over the past decade. Even the massive Waverley West megasuburb has failed to make a dent in declining enrolment, and has produced far fewer children than expected.

No longer heard are the demands for a fifth high school in the Lindenwoods/Whyte Ridge area — instead, empty seats are the order of the day.

Education Minister Nancy Allan has promised there’ll be word very soon on the timing and the location of the first school to be built in Waverley West. nevertheless, the division scaled back its initial hopes for six K-8 schools, and possibly two high schools, and now sees the need for only four K-8 schools and one high school. The division has provincial approval to add classrooms at Bonnycastle School instead of starting from scratch in Waverley West, a move that has rankled Coun. Justin Swandel and led to the rare move of a city councillor sounding off on a school board issue.

Seven Oaks School Division

Enrolment: 10,740 (+206)
Spending per student: $10,482
Mill rate: 16.715

Seven Oaks was for a long time Winnipeg’s smallest division other than Seine River, and some people still wonder why it wasn’t amalgamated with Winnipeg in 2002. The two divisions share geography and ethnosulural and socioeconomic demographics.

Now the division is soaring in size, surpassing St. James-Assiniboia and not that far behind Pembina Trails. The secret has been strong immigration into new homes in Riverbend and Amber Trails, without the empty-nester syndrome plaguing older areas elsewhere in Winnipeg.

Seven Oaks has always suffered from having a low commercial assessment base. Homeowners carry the burden far more than in other divisions, and there’s the seeming anomaly of Seven Oaks having exceptionally high property taxes yet spending less per student than any other city division.

And with a diverse student population probably even more varied than Winnipeg SD, Seven Oaks should be spending more, not less, to meet students’ needs.

West Kildonan Collegiate is already beyond capacity, and Maples and Garden City collegiates just keep growing, and growing, and growing.

St. James-Assiniboia School Division

Enrolment: 8,360 (-136)
Spending per student: $11,445
Mill rate: 13.352

Did you feel the Earth move?

It seems like forever that SJASD has boasted the city’s lowest mill rate, but this week trustees were forced to pass a budget that allowed Pembina Trails SD to slip into the bottom spot, and Louis Riel SD to take second-lowest. It’s believed to be the first time since the current mill rate system was established in the 1980s that St. James-Assiniboia does not have the lowest rate.

It’s hard to believe that St. James-Assiniboia was once Manitoba’s second-largest school division.

With no new housing developments, and empty nesters galore staying in their homes, the division continues to shrink.

It would be even worse were St. James-Assiniboia not enjoying a new increase of schools of choice students. The division forecasts that it will have fewer than 8,000 students by 2017.

SJASD has closed 16 schools since the 1980s, and would have merged Ness Junior High into Hedges School had the province not imposed its moratorium on school closings in 2008. The remaining school buildings are aging, and keeping them all open regardless of student numbers is costing a bundle in maintenance.

SJA has the highest proportion of property taxpayers who don’t have kids in school, and only a large commercial assessment base has kept the division’s taxes so low.

Seine River School Division

Enrolment: 3,864 (+36)
Spending per student: $10,817
Mill rate: 15.563

The division’s city schools are among some of the smallest in Winnipeg.

St. Norbert Collegiate is bigger only than Nelson McIntyre Collegiate among city high schools, while Parc La Salle and La Barriere Crossings elementary schools are among Winnipeg’s smallest schools. St. Norbert Immersion K-8 school has solid numbers.

Nowhere else in Manitoba does a rural-urban school division have such a large majority of students attending rural schools, and it’s still not entirely clear why the NDP left those four city schools in Seine River when it imposed amalgation of school divisions in 2002.

Seine River is experiencing some growth through immigration, and it benefits from strong French-language programming — especially since Hanover SD does not offer French bilingual — but the growth and new schools are out in the country.

There is also an anomaly in schools of choice that isn’t doing St. Norbert Collegiate any favours.

The expanding La Salle bedroom community does not have a high school, and La Salle students’ catchment area high school is St. Norbert Collegiate. But Sanford Collegiate is closer to La Salle, and Red River Valley SD runs free buses across the division boundary to scoop up many of those La Salle kids and deliver them to Sanford each day.

The overall result is the largest net loss of schools of choice students anywhere in Manitoba.

Notes on charts and statistics:

Note that house assessed at a value of $200,000 may vary dramatically from one division to another — the figure is provided as a benchmark.

Most school divisions provided their numbers to the Free Press and/or posted them on the division website. Turtle River School Division and the Whiteshell School District did respond to numerous requests this year or last year.

The Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine’s budget is based on taxes levied on parents of DSFM students by the school division in which they live, and transferred to the DSFM.

Frontier School Division is not included because special circumstances change its funding formula.

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