Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Class caps raise lid on costs

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The Brandon School Division is giving a heads-up warning to its taxpayers there is a hefty bill coming as schools there adjust to a provincial decree to cap class sizes at 20 children. The class cap is to take effect in 2017 and early board estimates indicate it will cost an additional $4 million.

Brandon is one of a few school divisions that have seen steady enrolment increases. Trustees are squeezing a variety of funds, including the board's surplus reserve, to find the $756,000 needed to hire nine teachers this year to keep kindergarten to Grade 3 classes at 24 students. Some of the money will come from provincial grants, but the board is also tapping its surplus -- an unsustainable fix.

The province believes its new class-cap rule will require 250 more teachers, at a cost of $20 million, and school expansions to accommodate the growth will cost $85 million. But that's ball-parking.

Generally, the Manitoba trend has seen steady drops in enrolment, so some schools have surplus space to use. Brandon, Seven Oaks, Garden Valley and Hanover are bucking that trend, largely because of dramatic rises in immigration.

But no one has done a good calculation of the financial ripples the new cap will cause. Nine years ago, the Winnipeg School Division calculated it would have to hire 93 teachers to cap its K-3 classes at 20 pupils.

The province allotted Brandon school board $131,000 this year to begin the move toward a 20-student cap. The province says 2012-13 is a planning year, with funding expected to increase as classes are capped.

Luckily for the province, its treasury will not take the full hit for the policy. Increased school costs are equally borne by municipal taxpayers, through property levies collected by the boards. This illustrates the disconnect in accountability in a bifurcated system in which the province has sole jurisdiction over education but off-loads a lot of the cost to boards that can tax.

Property owners will be hearing school boards in future years claim tax hikes are necessary because provincial grants fall short of covering the class-cap costs. The only way to bring transparency and accountability to the system is for the province to assume full responsibility for funding education by taking away the taxing authority of school boards and gradually phasing out school taxes.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2012 A12

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