Manitoba classrooms not spared in school board budget

Cutbacks incoming despite increase in overall funding


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THE fine print in approved school board budgets reveals Manitoba classrooms will not be spared of cutbacks in 2023-24, despite a sizable increase in overall operational funding.

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THE fine print in approved school board budgets reveals Manitoba classrooms will not be spared of cutbacks in 2023-24, despite a sizable increase in overall operational funding.

Education Minister Wayne Ewasko recently announced $100 million more would be spent on kindergarten-to-Grade 12 instruction next year. Ewasko suggested the total, up 6.1 per cent from this year’s funding for public schools, was “astronomical.”

Boards of trustees in the capital city — Pembina Trails, River East Transcona, Louis Riel, St. James-Assiniboia, Winnipeg, and Seven Oaks — have calculated their respective increases to be 11.7 per cent, followed by 6.6, six, 5.2, 4.1, and 2.1.

Education Minister Wayne Ewasko. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Although the latest provincial announcement represents the largest annual increase in at least 25 years, it comes on the heels of a half-dozen years of austerity measures.

Given funding has not kept up with the cost of living, and boards have been asked to freeze local property taxes as the province works to phase them out entirely, school leaders have downsized staffing rosters and drained “rainy day” funds to find savings in recent years.

Many newly-approved financial plans, all of which had to be filed by the end of March, follow suit. Here’s how trustees in Winnipeg plan to make do:

Pembina Trails School Division

Winnipeg’s fastest-growing division is undertaking a hiring spree ahead of the next school year, but it did not budget for enough new hires to maintain its high school staff teams.

Pembina Trails trustees have approved a $206-million budget that adds nearly 29 new full-time equivalent teaching positions and scraps all-day kindergarten.

The president of the local teachers association said about 17 more educators would have to be hired to guarantee the staff-to-student ratio that was intact in 2020-21, the most recent year the union could obtain audited statements for.

“We do understand that six years of governmental interference and underfunding have impaired your ability to effectively carry out your duties, we know that,” union leader Lise Legal told trustees during a public meeting about the draft budget.

At the time, however, Legal said she was optimistic the board would be able to find more efficiencies to add teachers to combat “bloated class sizes.”

While a budget news release states new provincial funding does not match enrolment growth, fixed costs or anticipated salary settlements, it indicates the board has found a way to preserve K-8 class sizes.

River East Transcona School Division

Citing an ongoing shortfall in operating dollars, one urban board has green-lit “the extraordinary step” of taking out a loan to cover one-time expenses in 2023-24.

“Borrowing for operational expenses has not happened in RETSD in the last 20 years… And while this loan will be paid back over the next five years, it is not a step the board of trustees takes lightly,” states an excerpt from a recent release.

River East Transcona’s $224-million budget is being touted by senior administrators as “the leanest it can be without causing deep cuts in the classroom.”

The division has set aside enough funds to hire 14 additional teachers to address population growth. It is anticipating 500 new students in the fall.

In order to find savings for essential operations, trustees have decided to defer maintenance projects.

The board plans to cover unforeseen expenses with a loan because its emergency fund has been depleted due to budget constraints in recent years.

Louis Riel School Division

One group of trustees says it did not see eliminating staff or student supports as an option at a time when teachers are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic’s toll on education.

Louis Riel’s board recently announced it has voted to use emergency funds reserved for one-time expenses to foot the bill for regular operations next year. A total of $2.4 million in surplus dollars has been earmarked to balance the budget, according to a news release.

“This use of accumulated surplus to make up for a shortfall in our annual funding is not sustainable and very concerning,” superintendent Christian Michalik said in a statement.

The board’s final budget comes to $224.7 million.

St. James-Assiniboia School Division

A shrinking student population and savings from not replacing retirees next year will allow St. James-Assiniboia to roughly maintain status-quo operations.

The SJASD board approved a $123.3-million budget that includes “significant reductions” of $1.2 million that will be attained through staff attrition.

A dozen positions will be terminated, while enrolment is projected to decrease by 0.43 per cent (or 36 pupils).

“We’ve had to make some tough decisions as we prioritize the needs in the classroom, while contending with cost pressures such as rising inflation, increased service costs and wage pressures,” Cheryl Smukowich, chairwoman of the board, said in a release.

The board indicated average class sizes are expected to mirror 2022-23 numbers and remain “well within” board guidelines.

It is division policy not to allow K-3 classes to exceed 23, cap Grades 4 and 5 courses at 28, ensure Grades 6-9 lists do not surpass 30, and ensure the most senior students study with no more than 35 peers in any class.

Winnipeg School Division

The most highly-populated district in the province is an outlier in its touting minor expansions to bilingual programming and support staff ranks in the coming year.

Its $454.8-million budget keeps existing programs and services intact.

The division is also hiring about 25 educational assistants and six bilingual teachers to support both a new Filipino bilingual program and its growing Spanish, Ukrainian, Cree and Ojibwa streams.

“We’re pleased to not have any cuts to programs and services in (WSD) next year, however, neither are we able to reinstate positions and programs that have been eliminated in the past five years due to chronic underfunding,” Tamara Kuly, who chairs the board’s finance committee, said in a release.

Seven Oaks School Division

Elected officials in one metro division are freezing school budgets, reducing overall staffing levels and raising local taxes in lieu of making “dramatic” cuts.

The Seven Oaks board has approved a $170.9-million plan that defies a provincial directive to freeze education property taxes. In response, the government is not granting the division its so-called property tax offset grant — a sum that amounts to $4 million.

Board chairwoman Maria Santos suggested the impact on taxpayers will be “slight” because many new properties have joined the tax roll this year: “The impact of reducing staffing and programming now would be dramatic, especially for those students who most need extra attention.”

The approved blueprint will require minor transportation policy adjustments and school supplies, purchased in bulk by Seven Oaks every year, to be distributed at a price tag of $40.

Free lunch supervision, field trips, instrument rentals and introductory swimming, skating and biking programs — items that were on the chopping block during budget consultations — will continue.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

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.

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