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Why your school property taxes will go up, another chapter

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Sometime this week, Education Minister James Allum will announce education funding for the $2.1 billion public school system for 2014-2015.

It’s always a tightly-guarded state secret right up to an hour or so before the minister makes the announcement, backed up by all kinds of nifty graphs and poster boards designed to show that the NDP is sparing no expense to learn our kids real good.

If someone gave me $25 million, chances are I’d be pretty happy about it, and I’m betting so would you, with the exception being those among my readers who are Jets’ first-round draft choices younger than 25. But I digress.

There’s very little possibility that your education property taxes will not be going up after Allum’s decree.

Why $25 million?

That’s the ballpark amount by which the province’s share of funding the public school system has gone up in recent years, roughly a two per cent increase on the province’s share.

It’s a really big deal for the Selinger government to maintain its record of increasing its share by at least the rate of provincial growth, and if you go on the finance part of www.gov.mb.ca, you’ll see that a two per cent increase in growth is in the ballpark.

So why do I keep talking about the province’s share?

Because Allum's potential two per cent share is not on the entire $2.1 billion system, it’s on the 55 to 60 per cent that the province pays — meaning the province is picking up maybe 1.2 per cent of any overall increased annual costs. The vast majority of the rest of the money comes from property taxes.

Last year, overall spending in public education rose 3.6 per cent, or $71.7 million. Do the math, and school boards cover about two-thirds of the increase each year, by tapping our pockets. Last year, that meant an average of $56.46 on a typical $200,000 home.

Pause while someone gets Canadian Taxpayers Federation head Colin Craig a sedative.

But, but, but, you’re saying, why do costs have to rise inexorably every year, far beyond inflation?

Last year teachers received a two per cent increase, plus increments and benefits, and despite almost stagnant enrolment, there were 247 more people on the payroll, 167 of them teachers. Hiring is up to school division managers, with the approval of their school boards.

I’ve said this umpteen times, but there is only so much money to be saved by turning down the thermostat and buying cheaper chalk — you want lower costs, then employ fewer people and/or pay them less.

Hold on, 15,000 teachers are heading for 1355 Mountain with torches and pitchforks — I didn’t say such cuts were a good idea, I said they were the reality if you want to reduce costs or slow the rate of increase.

It was ever thus, year after year after year, as long as Manitoba uses property taxes to carry the complex and confusing and convoluted and confounding public education funding formula, itself in turn based on the assessed values of properties within an artificially-conceived geographic area.

Harrumph.

But, there are several things this year that you should really be watching for when Allum speaks.

Last year, there was a guarantee in the funding announcement that no school division would receive less money than they year before, regardless of enrolment and the several dozen categories in which school divisions are assessed within the formula. Without that guarantee, 16 of 37 divisions would have received less in operating grants than the year before.

This is a government with precarious finances — will that guarantee of not a penny less than last year still be there?

If you think that your school taxes have been going up too much, imagine how much they’ll soar if your division gets decreased dollars from the province, and every penny of the spending increase comes from school property taxes.

The other biggie — how mucht will school boards budget for teachers?

I hate the overuse of the word ‘unique’, but let’s say it’s unprecedented in recent memory that all of the teachers’ contracts expire at once. Every deal ends at midnight on June 30, and no one has a clue what will happen.

For most of the past decade, teachers got at least three per cent a year, plus some cash bonuses. It was only in this last deal, identical financially but accepted individually by bargaining units across the province with only local variations in improved working conditions, that teachers and trustees agreed on two 1.5 per cent increases in the first year, followed by 2.0 in each of the next three years. Pretty sweet compared to what a lot of workers on the public payroll got in that period.

Allum says he’ll stick to government policy and won’t get involved in bargaining unless both sides want it. The teachers do, the trustees don’t.

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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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