‘Difficult combination’: decade of inflation crunches school divisions’ base funding

Three-quarters of Manitoba’s public school divisions are receiving fewer operating dollars today than they were a decade ago, when those figures are adjusted for inflation over time.

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Three-quarters of Manitoba’s public school divisions are receiving fewer operating dollars today than they were a decade ago, when those figures are adjusted for inflation over time.

Despite the rising cost of running a classroom in the 21st century, new data reveals only nine boards have recorded an overall percentage increase in annual provincial base funding since 2012. The inflation-adjusted value of the majority’s funding has fallen between one to 20 per cent.

Concerned about his employer’s worsening budget crunch, accountant Michael Harder — a rural resident who self-identifies as “a small-government guy” — set out to analyze K-12 budgets across the province.

“For kids that are very competent at school, that are good at school or good at a certain subject, a lack of resources isn’t going to hold them back. But when kids struggle with a subject, (it does),” said the school division employee.

Harder compiled a spreadsheet using public division revenue statistics and Canada’s annual rate of inflation over the last 10 years.

“For kids that are very competent at school, that are good at school or good at a certain subject, a lack of resources isn’t going to hold them back. But when kids struggle with a subject, (it does).”–School division employee

The resulting data show Beautiful Plains, Western, Brandon, Hanover, Garden Valley, Seine River, Seven Oaks, Mystery Lake and the francophone district are in the minority group that has had base funding increase between 2012-13 and 2021-22.

Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, called the findings “completely unsurprising.”

“When it comes to the ever-increasing operational realities of running schools in Manitoba, the funding was way behind before COVID (pandemic) and it’s much worse now — both in terms of the costs of the system and in terms of the needs of the students and the staff,” said Campbell, a veteran trustee in the Interlake School Division, which has recorded an 18 per cent decrease in base grant dollars.

Manitoba’s funding formula for public education, which was implemented in 2002-03, has long been criticized for creating inequities across the K-12 system, despite an equalization formula built into it. It allocates dollars based on student population, transportation requirements and building expenses, among numerous line items and supplementary grants.

Inflation-adjusted funding of Manitoba school divisions.

Only one of the 15 divisions that have suffered the greatest losses — meaning base funding, when adjusted with inflation, has dropped by 15 per cent or more — is not a rural district.

Five of them have added more students to their schools since September 2012.

In the Prairie Spirit School Division, encompassing Treherne, Cartwright and many farming communities between, funding has dropped, even though enrolment has increased by nearly 100 pupils.

“It’s a difficult combination,” said Jan McIntyre, chairwoman of the south central district’s board. “Basically, for the last two years, we’ve been running a deficit budget to maintain basic services and we’ve had to make cuts that have directly affected students.”

The division has scaled back its literacy and numeracy support staff and consolidated bus routes, while aiming to obey the province’s expectation no child spends more than one hour on a one-way bus commute to class.

Education and Early Childhood Learning Minister Wayne Ewasko. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

While noting trustees no longer have the ability to raise funds through local taxation, McIntyre said reduced provincial funding ultimately results in increased pressure on hardworking staff and burnout.

The Tory government announced its plans to overhaul the K-12 funding model in November 2021. A new version was anticipated to be in place for the 2023-24 school year, until Education Minister Wayne Ewasko announced more time was needed late last year.

In a statement, Ewasko said the review team is developing a model “that is equitable, supports long-term planning, and provides schools and school division leaders with additional flexibility to address local needs.”

“The (spreadsheet author) uses school divisions’ budget reports, which reflect the funding budgeted by the school divisions at the beginning of the school year and does not take into account in-year funding,” he said, noting recent COVID-19-related funding announcements and grants distributed to address wage pressures.

(The latter sums have been distributed after divisions were ordered to back pay staff because the Tories’ proposed public-sector wage freeze legislation was ruled unconstitutional.)

“Top-ups will never fulfill what’s needed in communities and schools, simply because there are costs that go up every year — heating the buildings, salaries, benefits.”–NDP education critic Nello Altomare

The minister noted Manitoba has earmarked $460 million for K-12 education — $308 million for capital projects, $77 million for wage pressures and other costs, and $22 million “to strengthen student support and learning” — on top of base funding for the current school year.

“Top-ups will never fulfill what’s needed in communities and schools, simply because there are costs that go up every year — heating the buildings, salaries, benefits,” countered NDP education critic Nello Altomare.

The Transcona MLA criticized the government for wasting time on Bill 64, the now-defunct piece of legislation that aimed to abolish school boards, and not prioritizing a funding formula update.

The main problem with the current equation, as far as Harder is concerned, is it fails to recognize employee salaries are the major driver of growing expenses rather than varying class size numbers.

It would make more sense if Manitoba Education came up with “a reasonable definition of what a classroom is,” and distribute base funding per classroom rather than per pupil, according to the accountant.

Manitoba is expected to release 2023-24 funding details in the coming weeks; school boards must submit upcoming budgets before March 15.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

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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