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School taxes outdated

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There is little surprise in the decision of Manitoba's school boards to raise taxes on homeowners upwards of three times the rate of inflation. The mock dismay expressed by Education Minister James Allum is more theatre from a long history of make-believe by the NDP.

Mr. Allum is the latest in a string of education ministers who have played out a game with school boards, warning, coercing or enticing them to hold the line on school levies. None of it, including $61 million in "tax incentive grants," worked. School-tax hikes come as sure as snow in March.

The reason is simple: Decades ago, the provincial government took its responsibility for funding education seriously, shouldering 80 per cent of the costs of schools. Today, that sits at less than 65 per cent.

The shift has come as the provincial government eliminated its own levy on residential property, and, as school boards hiked their own share, doled out credits to property owners -- totalling $352 million since 1999. Meanwhile, provincial grants to boards have increased moderately. In turn, school boards plead poverty and ratchet up their special levy on property. Hikes this year range between 6.8 per cent (Interlake School Division) and 1.5 per cent (Park West). At one time, school taxes were the lesser of the two hits on property; now in many districts they are higher than municipal taxes.

The varying rate of board levies across the province has had its effect: Education programs and resources vary widely, as does the cost to property owners. Some schools have full libraries and intensive remedial reading programs. The Winnipeg School Division, which imposes the highest school levy in the city, has a universal, half-day nursery program. That alone cost $5.3 million last year. The St. James School Division offers full-day kindergarten. In some parts of the province, small schools are blending multiple grades, struggling to stay open.

The picture is drawn in full relief when one compares the spending per pupil: Excepting the Frontier School Division (a remote, northern board with a small student population), the range is between $14,000 and $9,400 per pupil. The latter rate is found in southeast Manitoba's Hanover division, which not surprisingly has the province's highest pupil/educator ratio at 15.2.

Inevitably, the choices are made on the backs of property owners, which is an incongruous means of paying for quality in the classroom.

Property taxes ought to be roughly connected to property -- provision of water and sewer service, police and fire/paramedic response and maintenance of roads and other municipal amenities. Rather, the board's heavy reliance on property levies, in effect, has elbowed out municipalities, leaving them less room to increase property taxes to maintain or improve municipal services and infrastructure.

This is why public education, part of the social contract between citizens, is a provincial responsibility and its expense is borne by the ability to pay, through a progressive income tax scheme.

The NDP recognized the incongruity of property-based taxes and eliminated its own levy, but then manipulated the funding scheme by off-loading more of the costs of education to the boards.

This has played nicely for the NDP, seen as the bestower of tax breaks while mandating new programs the boards must fund.

Salaries make up 77 per cent of school costs. All boards are in contract negotiations this summer; those that have tried freezing teacher pay in the past have been slapped down in binding arbitration. Ratepayers can always be tapped for more.

Former premier Gary Doer once said his government would return to 80 per cent funding of schools as long the boards gave it control of expenses -- in other words, teacher salaries. The NDP never followed up. The result is accountability for the cost and the quality of schools is muddled.

The solution is for the province to cap and phase out school taxes and resume responsibility for the costs of schools out of general revenues and be held to account for this in general elections.

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 March 18, 2014 A8

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