Province withholds $4-M grant after Seven Oaks School Division raises taxes
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Manitoba Education is striking back against a school board in Winnipeg after its trustees voted to raise local taxes — in defiance of a provincial directive to freeze fees — to avoid sizable staffing and programming cuts.
Citing inadequate funding, Seven Oaks School Division trustees decided to increase revenue via tax hikes this week, so they can address demands related to growing enrolment and COVID-19-related recovery costs.
The owner of an average home valued at $341,000 in the district encompassing Mandalay West, Garden City and West St. Paul, among neighbouring communities, will see their annual tax bill increase by $118.
“At a time when Manitobans are struggling to cope with the pressures of inflation and rising cost of living, the board’s decision to hike local taxes is remarkably cavalier and out-of-touch,” Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said in a statement Friday.
The province is responding by withholding a $4-million grant it was going to provide as part of its property tax offset funding.
The Seven Oaks superintendent noted residents will receive a 50 per cent discount via Manitoba’s rebate program, as provincial officials continue phasing out the fee in its entirety.
“The level of funding they’ve provided to us isn’t adequate for us to have status quo, in terms of programs, class sizes, supports to kids, accrue some money for potential salary settlements and cope with significantly increasing enrolment,” said Brian O’Leary, who oversees the education of almost 12,000 students.
O’Leary said residents are overwhelmingly happy the division chose to raise taxes rather than make substantial cuts, and maintained the province made an error in calculating equalization when it disbursed funds this year.
Six weeks ago, when the education minister announced funding allotments for 2023-24, Ewasko indicated all boards would see at least 2.5 per cent more money than last year.
Seven Oaks’ share amounts to a 3.8 per cent increase, per the province.
The school division’s calculations suggest its operating dollars are only going up 2.1 per cent — a figure that does not match its projection its student population will grow three per cent — when taking into account a provincially-mandated freeze on taxes.
The Winnipeg and St. James-Assiniboia school boards, both of which are anticipating enrolment to either stagnate or decrease slightly, have reported respective increases of 4.1 and 5.2 per cent.
Seven Oaks’ $170.9-million budget will reduce staffing levels and freeze school budgets. Non-salary expenditures are going up 0.31 per cent, despite surging inflation costs.
The financial plan requires families to pay $40 for school supplies, includes no significant changes to transportation policies, and maintains ongoing learn to swim, skate and bike programs.
Board chairwoman Maria Santos called the impact on individual taxpayers “slight,” owing to a substantial number of new homes, apartments and businesses that have joined the tax roll in recent months. The board’s mill rate is slated to decrease to 14.809 from 15.521.
“The impact of reducing staffing and programming now would be dramatic,” Santos said in a release.
“We’re seeing services that are cut to students right now, that require support like never before — in the shadow of a pandemic. We know this, and a government with record revenues is deciding to ignore them. It’s shameful,” said NDP education critic Nello Altomare.
Altomare, a retired principal, said the budget cuts that have been approved across the province will negatively impact students, families and communities.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.