Telling Tales out of School
with Nick Martin
05/23/2013 1:41 PM
The Selinger government has made a very clear and conscious decision to put money back into the pockets of homeowners and students rather than directly into our education institutions.
There are very few parallels between the funding of the public school system and the funding of the postsecondary system. Tuition plays roughly the role of property taxes as the second-greatest source of funding after provincial operating grants, albeit in a lower proportion, but that’s about it.
Though, one must say, both funding systems are complex, convoluted, and confusing.
The provincial funding for universities and colleges pays no attention to per-student funding, which is at the heart of funding the kindergarten to Grade 12 system.
U of M president David Barnard raised numerous questions in our interview Wednesday over tuition here being so far below the national average, third-lowest in the country, and why the province concentrates on reducing students’ costs, to the detriment of the institutions.
This is a chaotic time for universities across Canada, and let’s be clear, even though the province reneged on its three-year commitment to increase operating grants five per cent a year, it still increased grants by 2.5 per cent.
I read Academica Top Ten every day, the postsecondary news roundup out of LondonOnt. Governments are playing hardball with universities, and the impact in particular on Alberta universities of that province’s deep funding reductions is pretty near cataclysmic for job and program cuts. Just today, Academica Top Ten reported that the tiny University of Prince Edward Island has to lay off 35 people and reduce its budget nine per cent because of provincial funding reductions. U of M’s cuts amounted to about 0.8 per cent.
But back to our main topic, and my never-ending quest to force even the eyes of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to glaze over.
The K-12 system has an annual operating budget of $2.026 billion. But — and you knew there were to be many ‘buts’ — tens of millions of dollars never go into a classroom.
Start with the education property tax credit, which, before 2006, was simply a property tax credit paid out of general revenues that took a few hundred dollars off the bottom of your property tax bill. Go to page 42 of the FRAME (Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education) gripping page-turner of a read, and you’ll see that the education property tax credit is $192.6 million.
But, not a penny of that money goes into a classroom. Though the government has labelled it education funding, all that money comes off the bottom of your property tax bill.
FRAME also lists $35.6 million as the farmland tax rebate and $1.5 million as pensioners’ tax assistance. And someday soon we’ll be adding the elimination of education property taxes for seniors.
Those last three represent money that does go into the public school system, but the province has decided that it will dig into general revenues for $37.1 million to put the cash back into people’s pockets. That’s reimbursing certain taxpayers, instead of taking that $37.1 million the government can apparently spare from general revenues and increasing the revenue available to run the public school system. Sure, taxpayers of various kinds would be left holding the bag, but the money would theoretically improve the quality of education.
OK, now let’s switch to the postsecondary system and specifically to universities. Is anyone still awake out there? No? Not even Colin Craig?
I don’t expect that the Tory education and advanced education critics are still with us, because their alternative policies are "NDP bad, NDP really bad", with no constructive and/or creative solutions offered that we’ve heard so far.
But I digress.
The provincial government will provide $480 million as university operating grants in 2013-2014, of which $325 million goes to U of M. Hardly chump change.
Statistics Canada and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada list extensive data which show that the average Manitoba undergraduate student with a maximum course load pays just about $2,000 less per year in tuition fees than does the average Canadian university student.
Tuition, as everyone still with us surely knows, is based on the courses taken, not on how many bodies are on a campus.
So let’s be conservative here — pause while right wing ideologues among regular readers make snide remarks — and say that there are 30,000 fulltime equivalent students with maximum course loads at U of M, U of W, and BrandonU. That would be another $60 million a year in revenue available to run the universities.
Now keep in mind that the Selinger government has a very generous graduate retention tax rebate paid to grads who stay in Manitoba after university, that’s capped with percentages and dollars but is still pretty generous in further reducing the impact of tuition fees that are also very low. Last year, the province ponied up $25.5 million.
By now, they’re having conniptions over at the Canadian Federation of Students, which wants free tuition and is undoubtedly horror-stricken at where I’m going. But I’ll carry on.
Further keep in mind that the province also allows Manitoba students currently in university — including those from here who go to university outside the province — to claim an advance on that rebate each year while they’re still in school. It’s capped, of course, but the provincial budget says that will pay out at least $4 million this coming tax year.
Those dollars are piling up, eh, and nary a penny of it going into the operation of the schools.
But wait, there’s more.
Remember a few years ago when the province had frozen tuition at 1999 levels, and those dastardly universities had tried to use a back door to raise some serious coin by increasing ancillary fees? Those are fees levied on students for bus passes, using the gym, for libraries, to run the bookstore, to support student radio, parking, all sorts of things. The province kiboshed additional ancillary fees and told the universities to knock it off.
And then there’ve been the attempts by professional schools at U of M and a couple at U of W to get exempted from tuition controls, and be allowed to raise their fees to somewhere near the national averages. The province has allowed a couple, but only one or two.
Bottom line, there’s a lot of money out there that could be going into operating the universities.
The elephant in the room is the cost to students, accessibility, and the financial ability of low-income students to attend university.
I know I’m taxing your memories — why not, everything else in Manitoba is taxed, bad-da-boom — but remember back when the province not only froze tuition at 1999 levels, but further reduced students’ tuition fees by 10 per cent? That’s been phased out as the province allowed tuition rates to rise at the level of the CPI. Back then, I raised the issue of taking that money, which cost the province about $15 million a year, and gearing it to income. That wouldn’t be equitable, retorted the NDP, so all students saw their tuiton cut by about $300 a year, regardless they were single mothers from the North End, or the daughter of senior professionals living on Wellington Crescent.
Back then, I reckoned that the 10 per cent reduction money would provide full tuition for the better part of 4,500 to 5,000 students a year, if it was geared to income.
I’m not saying that tuitions should skyrocket, or that all the money being dangled as an incentive to stay here after graduation should go to the universities. Any changes to tuition and money going to the schools should include a condition that a certain amount goes towards scholarships and bursaries, an idea that’s hardly original with me. As I recall, the professional schools made their pitch with a condition that part of the increase would go to student financial aid for those students who would qualify academically but not have the money to enrol.
But just as we need to recognize that the quality of education in the K-12 system is based on the assessed value of properties within defined geographical boundaries, we need to recognize that the quality of education in our universities varies on how government balances institutional health and students’ costs.
05/17/2013 4:00 PM
One Montana educator is horrified by the prospect of Manitoba’s potentially reflecting sexual orientation and gender identity issues in school curricula.
That’s a proposal going before the annual meeting of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society next week, and if it passes, Education Minister Nancy Allan has said she is open to listening to the teachers’ union.
And before I hear again from one particular less-than-admiring reader, no, you should not assume that I consider the word ‘union’ a pejorative.
Back to today’s topic.
I just received an email which was also copied to several Manitoba Teachers' Society senior players, from Glenn Wehe, an educator working for the Evergreen School District in Kalispell, Montana. While Wehe says he’s not speaking for his employer, he uses his employer’s email and signs the message with his work information.
Here’s some of what Wehe had to say:
"Unfortunately, Manitoba is a little too close to Montana for us to simply laugh out loud at the attempt of MTS to force parents to subject their children to information about an unnatural lifestyle and an unpopular political view.
"At least here in Montana we teach morals and ethics without the need to also teach debauchery and sodomy.
"I am sorry for our Canadian brothers and sisters in the teacher unions to the north, for they are forced to accept standards against their desire to teach the children. If I were teaching in Canada I most surely would leave the profession out of shame."
Wehe also talks about Canadian society being degraded, about multitudes of Manitobans being opposed to the MTS proposal but driven into anonymity by the fear of retribution from government, and he tosses out the possibility that the abduction and rape of children can be linked to such teachings. He casually uses the most vile and loathesome word in the English language, Nazi.
This comes from an educator who works with children. Various websites list Wehe as technology co-ordinator for his Montana school district, and the newspaper website The Missoulian says Wehe has run unsuccessfully for office. There is no mention on-line that I could find of his being a certified teacher.
Yes, it’s from someone in Montana, but when Manitoba public school teachers consider their executives’ proposal next week, they should keep in mind that Wehe’s type of attitudes are not necessarily confined to him. And maybe some teachers in Montana will hear about what Manitoba is doing, and consider whether their own children could benefit from some of those ideas.
05/16/2013 3:38 PM
It shouldn’t be this challenging to write about the positive things happening to make schools safer.
I went last Friday to Education Minister Nancy Allan’s conference on safe and caring schools, which drew all 37 public school divisions and other major education players.
Allan gathered more than 300 participants and experts, with special emphasis on cyberbullying. At the same time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was downtown with his own group of participants and experts on cyberbullying, and there were no connections or pooling of resources between the two gatherings.
I knew the agenda for Allan’s conference because I had it in my calendar and asked ahead of time. But the forum was already under way when the government sent out a news release, which may help explain why I appeared to be the only media member there.
The emcee was Mary Hall, director of Safe Schools Manitoba, who talked briefly about some of the good work she does in schools. Hall severed her agency’s relationship with the Free Press on April 21, 2005, and we don’t hear about all those good things Hall does to make our schools and children safer.
Allan singled out for praise Evan Wiens, a student at Steinbach Regional Secondary School. Allan cited his extraordinary bravery and determination to establish a gay-straight alliance in his school.
Alas, Wiens only talks to the CBC.
The best events of the day, as far as potential newsworthiness goes, were Allan’s meeting with 50 students from across Manitoba, who told the minister about the reality of life inside their schools, and a session in which students from the Gray Academy of Jewish Education explained how they had established a gay-straight alliance in their school.
Again, alas, the province had decreed that any session involving students was off limits to the media.
05/9/2013 4:09 PM
I was surprised to hear Evan Wiens on CBC this morning talking about the gay-straight alliance he’s started at Steinbach Regional Secondary School.
Surprised, because when I called Wiens to ask how the first meeting went last month, he declined to be interviwed, told me he was withdrawing from the public spotlight to concentrate on school, and asked the media to respect his privacy.
Wiens had courted and received a lot of media attention the previous few weeks, as he tried to persuade Hanover School Division to allow him to promote the GSA within the school.
So I contacted Wiens to find out what had happened, and pointed out to him that those of us who’d complied with his request to respect his privacy, would have difficulty explaining to our bosses and our readers why CBC had a story that we didn’t.
And here was his reply: "CBC has been kind to me as I’ve been working closely with them on a diary project. So I allowed them a small update on the GSA. I don’t believe that’s any of your business. I believe I’m allowed to use my freedom of speech in whichever way I choose."
Yes, Wiens can speak to whomever he chooses.
But, with respect, it is my business. When someone who has chosen to become a public figure asks to be left alone, and then re-emerges in a rival medium, it is my business to ask what’s happening.
This is a big story that won’t go away. The right to establish a GSA within a public school and within private schools that receive public funding is at the heart of Bill 18. Steinbach is quite obviously at the heart of opposition to the bill.
Wiens has been a part of that story. Going forward, he’ll be a part of that story on CBC, but his voice won’t be heard anywhere else — not in our paper, not in the Sun, not on CJOB or on Global or CTV or City, or anywhere else. People may talk about him along the way, people may talk about his GSA, but his voice won’t be heard. That’s his choice.
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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