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Spreading confusion is what TIGgers do best

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The annual FRAME report is compelling reading for anyone who wants to know how Manitoba schools are spending $1.96 billion of public money this year.

OK, "compelling" may not be the right word to describe the annual report on Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education. "Essential," let’s go for that.

You can read my story about this year’s FRAME report here.

The 2011-2012 FRAME report is available here.

What FRAME tells us is that the province-wide increase in education property taxes approved by school trustees last March is the smallest in 30 years. Only four school boards went for school tax increases: Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Turtle Mountain and Western.

Everyone else grabbed Education Minister Nancy Allan’s tax incentive grant in return for agreeing not to increase property taxes.

Allan’s TIG has reached an extraordinary $61.4 million.

At the end of last January, when Allan announced her operating grants for this year, she put $30 million in new money on the table. That’s more than the rate of provincial economic growth, but less than some other years. TIG would continue for a fourth year, but how much money each school division would get, would be revealed in the fullness of time.

Turned out to be a bundle.

Allan will be announcing her funding near the end of this month — the last Thursday of January has been the date in recent years — and let’s try to figure out what all of this might mean.

Yes, I know this kind of stuff makes your brain hurt, but let’s give it a try.

School trustees have been warning that taking TIG could soon hamstring them — by grabbing the cash, they’re limiting spending increases to whatever share of TIG they get, plus their share of the province’s increase in operating grants.

Spending across the system is up 3.97 per cent this year. Allan’s increase in operating grants, when spread over the entire budget rather than just expressed as a percentage increase in the province’s share of revenues, is 1.58 per cent. With only four school boards raising taxes, TIG pretty much covers that remaining 2.39 per cent increase.

TIG has been around for four years, and it’s as hard to understand as anything else in the complex, convoluted and confusing provincial education funding formula.

It’s changed each year, catch after catch emerging as school trustees worked to set their budgets by March 15. TIG is based on what each division has spent over the previous four years, and, once accepted, gets built into the base of a division’s annual operating grant for the next year — is your brain hurting yet?

Trustees grumble that taking TIG sounds quite lucrative, but there may be a price to pay. Not boosting taxes keeps the residents happy, but what happens when a school board gives up its flexibility and can’t pay for new programs or services needed or wanted?

There’s no guarantee that TIG will go on forever, or how much money will be in the pot this year, and how it will be divvied up. Allan could change the criteria, or the finance minister could yank it altogether — if that money disappears, trustees would need to hike property taxes significantly just to maintain the status quo. What if there’s a big reduction in TIG that’s not offset by additional operating grants?

TIG allows the Selinger government to boast that it is responsible for freezing property taxes, but is there a cost to the quality of education?

Just to digress, the province pumps $178.3 million into education property tax credits — money which doesn’t add a single penny to improving the education system, money whose sole purpose is to reduce property tax bills.

Frozen taxes also freeze the existing disparities and inequities in tax revenue available to each division — boards that taxed higher in the past for wider programs and services still enjoy that proportionally higher revenue, while boards that want to match some of those programs and services lack the money to improve. There are still divisions which enjoy a leg up because of higher taxes in the past, far higher assessed property values, or because they’re in the minority of divisions with rich commercial assessment bases that boost their kitty without putting any more strain on the schools.

Right about now, I can picture the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation reaching for the comments button, but not knowing where in the world to start ranting.

My story earlier this week on FRAME pointed out that again this year that spending on special needs students represents the biggest chunk of new money. That’s primarily in the form of more educational assistants in the classrooms.

Meanwhile, regular instruction in English and French, as well as operations and maintenance, are declining as a percentage of overall spending.

If you can handle a few more stats, consider that salaries and benefits account for 82.7 per cent of the $1.96 billion. Salaries are up 4.3 per cent this year and benefits 4.5 per cent, both obviously rising more quickly than overall spending.

Bottom line, there’s less money to go to equipment and supplies.

To complicate everything even more, close to half the divisions already have labour stability through the summer of 2014, teachers in 17 divisions having accepted annual two per cent raises for the next three years. That’s less than the three per cent minimum raise they’ve become accustomed to over the past decade.

And one more complication — a handful of divisions has experienced enrolment growth, some such as Seven Oaks, Brandon and Garden Valley seeing quite significant growth in students. If they freeze taxes, will their operating grants and potential pieces of the TIG action allow them to hire enough teachers to maintain quality of education?

And as always, Greg, Nancy, is this any way to fund a public education system?

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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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