Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

School tax grab must end

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Winnipeggers are beginning to see how costly is the public school funding scheme in a province where the government that holds core responsibility for education refuses to shoulder the responsibility to pay for it. School boards are slowly releasing how much they will hike their own school levies on property, but the largest division believes it will increase this year by almost seven per cent, totalling 15 per cent in two years.

Few homeowners can boast an income rising as fast.

What is driving up the costs of school boards so rapidly? The bulk of their expenses is salaries -- boards have given annual salary hikes despite the provincial request two years ago for publicly paid workers to take a wage freeze.

Further, the Winnipeg school board, the province's largest, has felt no compulsion to rein in its own costs -- since 2010, its administration budget has risen 10 per cent to $10 million. This year, it says it found $2.6 million to cut in administration and other budget lines.

But the provincial government, which pays only 65 per cent of school costs, has also loaded up boards' expense columns with mandated policies, such as physical education through to Grade 12, capping class size from K to Grade 3 and a moratorium on boards closing schools with declining enrolment.

Between them, the school boards and the provincial government are picking the pockets of taxpayers.

The provincial government has constitutional responsibility for education, but refuses to be fully accountable for its funding. This penalizes taxpayers, obscures the transparency of the accounts and confounds any real value-for-money assessment.

It also encroaches upon the room that cash-strapped municipalities might have to raise revenues on their tax rolls. School taxes take more cash from homeowners than do many municipalities and that's been the case in much of Winnipeg for years.

The province in 2008 pledged to fund 80 per cent of the cost of education, a hollow promise that can't be met because it does not control school board budgets.

Winnipeg city council in 2007 passed a resolution calling for the province to remove school taxes from property and to assume responsibility for funding entirely. The province responded by pressuring boards to freeze taxes; that effort, greased with grants that simply larded the base of board budgets, has run its course to no good effect.

Winnipeg's council should reassert its 2007 motion. The Association of Manitoba Municipalities has an obvious interest in joining with the province's largest city for the elimination of education taxes on property. Mayor Sam Katz should lead this campaign.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 A14

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