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Why school taxes are going up --- chapter 2

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You’re saying to yourself, $27.2 million in new provincial school operating grants sounds like a lot of money, so why would my school property taxes go up?

We’ll tell you...maybe, though, you want to grab some strong coffee or chug a few Red Bulls to stay awake.

Education Minister Nancy Allan has increased operating grants to public school boards by 2.3 per cent, matching or beating provincial economic growth for the 14th straight year.

That’s good, eh?

You have to remember that the province’s increase is a percentage on the province’s share of total education funding, which last year hit $2.026 billion financed almost entirely by the province and school divisions in roughly a 60-40 split.

Apply Allan’s new money to the overall cost of running the system, and it amounts to about a 1.25 per cent increase, give or take a dozen decimal points.

Now, remember also that in recent years the overall cost of running the system has gone up by as much as 4.1 per cent a year.

Last year, it went up 3.29 per cent, or $64.7 million. Allan provided $25.5 million a year ago, so the rest had to come from cuts to jobs, programs, and services, or from school property tax increases.

School trustees across the province opted to raise school property taxes by an average of 5.1 per cent.

Could the same thing happen this year?

Without getting too technical and indulging in too much eduspeak jargon, the answer is, well, yeah.

Allan touted improved programming in literacy and numeracy, and those improvements would be commendable, right? The funding announcement was heavy on equalization, extra cash for divisions with declining enrolment and/or low assessment bases. We won’t talk about how much money right now, because that would totally confuse you about the convoluted, complex, and confusing provincial funding formula.

That will be in a future blog.

And remember also that if anyone wants to cut back spending in education, that wages and benefits make up around 85 per cent. Try turning down the heat at night, telling teachers to use less chalk, or instructing bus drivers to cut across people’s fields to save a little gas, and you’ll find the savings to be found from the other 15 per cent of spending aren’t particularly significant.

The only way to reduce spending is to employ fewer people, and teachers are by far the largest employee group, accounting for more than half of the entire system’s operating budget. All but one division has settled contracts through June 30, 2014, that give teachers a two per cent raise in September of 2013, plus significant incremental raises for teachers with less than 10 years’ experience. With the province reducing class size, boosting literacy and numeracy, emphasizing physical activity — again, all good things — how can any division reduce its teacher workforce?

In the next few days, each division will be told how much in new money it will get from the province, if any — 16 of the 37 divisions would have received less money than last year, had Allan not guaranteed every division would receive at least last year’s grants. But 16 divisions are getting zero increase. Who they are — word will come down in a day or two.

School boards must file their mill rates by March 15 — over the next few days, we’ll be hearing about draft budgets.

Count on school property tax increases.

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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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