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WSD budget is top secret

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You’ll get your chance to address the Winnipeg School Division board on its budget right around the end of February, barely two weeks before the March 15 deadline for passing budgets.

That’s the way WSD does it every year: the finance committee and full board wrestle with the $356 million budget behind closed doors for months before the public forum.

I have a story on the possibility of at least an eight per cent hike in school property taxes in the province’s largest division, which you can read here.

The story is based on what trustee Mark Wasyliw, the board’s vice-chair, told me. The division won’t say anything, which is par for the course.

Secrecy is the norm in WSD. Do you really imagine that you as an individual resident can sway a majority of trustees to make a significant revision to the budget at virtually the last minute? Those public forums don’t even merit being called paying lip service to political transparency and public accessibility.

A handful of delegates comes, and each gets 10 minutes to speak. Some people hand out lengthy briefs, which some trustees may even read. You’ll be cut off by the chair after 10 minutes, but trustee Mike Babinsky usually can be counted on to toss the delegates some softball questions designed to let them get the rest of their message out. Then your delegation will be received as information, and participatory democracy will be seen to have been duly carried out. And a week or so later, the board will pass the budget.

Given the tough talk from the province about massive deficits, this could be one of the worst years for provincial funding since the NDP took office in 1999. Last year, the confusing, complex, and convoluted provincial funding formula gave WSD virtually no increase from the year before.

Wasyliw says that the division is forecasting a three per cent spending increase to maintain the status quo, and that makes sense, even if the division won’t confirm it. That’s close to $11 million.

If the province doesn’t come through with more money, and the division has to handle the full load of the increase, that’s about an eight per cent increase in the amount of money collected through property taxes, or $112 on a house assessed at a value of $200,000. That’s a combination of Wasyliw’s information and my calculations, based on the provincial Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education report.

Wasyliw also said that there’s considerable pressure on the division to provide greater math resources, which will be costly, and some parents are asking for full-day kindergarten, at an additional $6 million. The division won’t confirm that number, but based on province-wide estimates a few years back, it sounds right.

None of this will be discussed publicly before February by the division, which, like all school boards in Manitoba, gets its collective nose out of joint when a trustee decides to act like a democratically-elected and publicly-accountable politician, and open her or his mouth.

Finance chair Cathy Collins told me she won’t have anything to say about the budget situation before Education Minister Nancy Allan announces provincial funding at the end of January.

That’s really helpful to students and parents and residents.

WSD did consult at a meeting held at Tec Voc in late November. It was for parent councils and MLAs, and it was by invitation only.

I heard about it later from a highly-placed WSD official, when we were at a party hosted by mutual friends. The unnamed person pretty much taunted me about having missed such an important gathering and having failed to do my job, then told me that this could be the budget year that there are some serious cuts to hold down taxes.

I’ve since been told that a few people wanted the session publicly announced and open to the media, but the ruling cabal decreed that it remain invitation-only and not only be closed to the media, but not disclosed to the media.

So you have a budget that will run somewhere around $367 million and affect about 34,000 students, and all the discussions will be behind closed doors until the board sees fit to hold its public forum at the end of February. That’s the way WSD does business.

Yes, certainly I’ll be encouraging trustees to talk publicly about the secret decisions they’re making, with or without attribution, and I’ll be working sources and calling the unions who’ll be affected by those decisions. But an allegedly public budget process should not be dependent on leaks.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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