EDUCATION Minister Nancy Allan has effectively given up trying to control the cost of public schools, increasingly borne by property owners who pay the taxes levied by school boards. School boards complain the increase to their provincial grants — set by Ms. Allan at 2.3 per cent this year — don’t cover the increasing school costs, which exceed ordinary inflation.
That might be true: much of the national inflation rate is tied to the cost of commodities but the salaries of staff, primarily teachers, are publicly funded. Teachers get near-guaranteed raises each year and enjoy richer benefits than those of private-sector workers. Boards are not compelled to hold salaries and benefits down because taxpayers’ pockets can always be picked.
Last year, Winnipeg School Board raised its levy on property owners by almost eight per cent and is projecting it will raise taxes again this year. School taxes across the province were raised last year by an average 5.1 per cent.
The NDP government once made perfunctory noises about getting tough with school boards to hold down tax increases, but all of the schemes it devised have only compounded the problem.
A tax incentive grant the province rewarded for a couple of years to school divisions that did not raise taxes is gone now, but the grants became part of the funding base upon which today’s increases are larded.
Ms. Allan and her predecessors made the cost-containment a charade by making physical education mandatory to Grade 12 and capping class sizes in elementary grades, which triggered hiring sprees.
All of this has produced steadily rising education payrolls and budgets, despite the fact enrolment has steadily fallen.
To halt or control the tax hikes school boards can get tough at bargaining and hold the line on salary increases and benefits; or, the provincial government, more logically, could pull the boards’ taxing authority and begin to phase out the property levy toward fully funding education from the provincial treasury. That would better reflect the province’s constitutional responsibility for education.
History has shown that school boards are not up to the task of holding the line on salaries and benefits. The NDP, beholden to unions, is unlikely to antagonize the Manitoba Teachers Society.
This opens opportunity for Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives, who are looking for ways to convince voters they are a viable option for provincial government.