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Why school taxes are about to go up (part two)

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I put in what seemed like a simple request to the department of education — how much money do the school divisions have in surplus, and what percentage of their revenues does that represent?

And soon I received a report on the amount of surplus as of June 30, 2010.

Um, that’s kind of a long time ago, do you have anything more recent?

No, the 2011 data won’t be available until the fall.

Well, that’s not very helpful to understanding the school board budgets that trustees must pass by March 15, is it?

You’d think that the province would have a better handle on how much that school divisions have in reserve. After all, Education Minister Nancy Allan reiterated last week that it’s capped at four per cent of revenues, and the province has been urging school boards for years to spend down the surplus to hold down property taxes.

As in so many things, the nuances of language are pretty key here.

Calling it surplus will have the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation ranting like soccer parents who’ve gone off their meds under a full moon. The word ‘surplus’ conjures up visions of school trustees cavorting like Scrooge McDuck in vaults piled high with cash.

Call the money contingency reserves, and you might get a different reaction.

Ever since I started covering municipal politics in IngersollOnt back in 1973, I’ve been hearing that accountants tell councillors and trustees that it’s prudent to keep five per cent in reserve. We’re at four per cent max, and I’m doubting that the next provincial scorecard will show very few school divisions near their max.

The money’s there for unexpected bills that have to be paid.

Maybe the cost of utilities goes up in an extra-cold winter, maybe there’s a big jump in the price of school bus fuel. Maybe there are sudden maintenance costs, a furnace that quits or pipes that leak.

Some divisions save up over several years to bring in a new computer system or other improvements, stuff that will help your kids, but which cost too much to be paid for out of one current budget.

Then there are divisions who have to save up for contract settlements. There are five divisions so far going to arbitration over contracts that expired June 30, 2010; two have arbitration hearings this June and November, respectively, the other three are waiting for dates, and it takes months to get a ruling, certainly well into 2013.

Meanwhile, the divisions have to stash away enough money to cover three years’ worth of retroactive wage raises and improved benefits that can’t be forecast until the arbitrator rules.

Trustees, however, have been spending that contingency reserve money to keep taxes down, as the provincial government decreed.

With Allan’s operating grant increases this year covering only one-third of the amount by which the expenses of operating the public school system normally increase, chances are that any improvements or any retroactive raises will come out of property tax increases — there’s precious little left in the cupboard.

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