November 24, 2017

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Education minister urged to dump NDP's funding pledge

Divisions were promised financing won't drop, even if enrolment does

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Manitoba Education Minister Ian Wishart.</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba Education Minister Ian Wishart.

Senior civil servants have told Education Minister Ian Wishart it's time to scrap the province's complex public schools funding formula and come up with a new one.

And they've told Wishart he needs to take a serious look at the guarantee that no school division will get a penny less than it did the year before, regardless what has happened to enrolment or property values.

The built-in guarantee that no school division will lose money from one year to the next --- a decision by the former NDP government --- has rendered the entire process ineffective, says an internal government report.

In effect, the entire $32.5 million of new money this winter went to just 15 school divisions, while 22 school divisions received an additional $26.1 million just to avoid cuts --- money that the funding formula says they didn't deserve to get.

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Senior civil servants have told Education Minister Ian Wishart it's time to scrap the province's complex public schools funding formula and come up with a new one.

And they've told Wishart he needs to take a serious look at the guarantee that no school division will get a penny less than it did the year before, regardless what has happened to enrolment or property values.

The built-in guarantee that no school division will lose money from one year to the next —- a decision by the former NDP government —- has rendered the entire process ineffective, says an internal government report.

In effect, the entire $32.5 million of new money this winter went to just 15 school divisions, while 22 school divisions received an additional $26.1 million just to avoid cuts —- money that the funding formula says they didn't deserve to get.

This year, 22 of the 37 school divisions in Manitoba would have had the previous year's operating grants cut had it not been for the guarantee. Just bringing them up to the "zero guarantee" cost taxpayers $26.1 million —- which is almost as much new money as the $32.5 million that the former Selinger government pumped into the K-12 system this year, and more than the increased grants in some recent years.

In effect, it was found money for the majority of school divisions who would have lost money under the funding formula.

Civil servants told Wishart: "The formula guarantee ensures that every division receives at least the amount of funding provided in the prior year regardless of changes in enrolment levels or property assessment values. This essentially renders the funding formula for base, categorical, and equalization grants ineffective."

Staff advised Wishart: "As education priorities have evolved, it may be time to review the existing formula guarantee to determine the changes needed to best meet the current requirements of school divisions."

An aide to Wishart said Thursday that the minister is talking to people within the system to see where he goes next.

"We have encouraged the Department of Education and Training to bring forward innovative ideas to improve public education in Manitoba. Recognizing that we are at the early stages of our mandate, additional consideration is needed before a decision is made on K-12 funding reform," said Wishart's aide.

"The options presented by the civil service include developing a new formula, with different approaches to exploring whether changes are needed to better meet the needs of school divisions, as well as maintaining the current model. The minister is meeting with school divisions over the summer and looks forward to collaborative discussions."

The bureaucracy especially urged Wishart to find a new way of determining equalization grants —- in a system weighted heavily to generating education tax revenue based on divisions' assessed property values, equalization has been intended to overcome a low assessment base and lack of significant commercial assessment.

The funding formula uses dozens of factors —- such as school busing, special needs, English as an additional language —- to determine how much money the province provides that division in operating grants.

Per-pupil spending is a key criterion, higher per student in high school than in elementary. But much depends on the assessed value of properties within a division. A minority of school divisions has most of the province's commercial assessment base, which they are not required to share with other divisions.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Nick Martin.

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