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Manitoba Education Minister Ian Wishart has announced the smallest increase in public education funding since the 1990s — $6.6 million, or a 0.5 per cent increase in the province’s share.
Manitoba is clawing back even more money than it is distributing — reducing provincial money by $7.5 million in the first year of a six-year plan to recover the $61.4-million tax-incentive grant (TIG) that’s been sitting in school divisions’ budgets since the former NDP government abandoned the TIG in 2011.
Less money will go to 21 divisions this year, while 16 school divisions will get more than last year.
The funding will set the stage for the upcoming comprehensive review of everything in the $2.4-billion public education system — a review that, Wishart said, will be the biggest change in a generation.
Wishart said the Tory government has a legal opinion that he has the right to carry out all plans that were announced Thursday.
The minister has told school trustees the mill rates they set by March 15 should not exceed a two per cent increase in property taxes collected.
The government, led by Premier Brain Pallister, is telling school divisions to reduce their caps on administration costs by 15 per cent — 20 of the 37 divisions are over the new lower caps.
Wishart will also introduce amendments to the Public Schools Act to impose provincewide bargaining with teachers when their collective agreements expire June 30. That’s when teachers would fall under Bill 28, which freezes their salaries and benefits for two years, then provides a 0.75 per cent increase in the third year and 1.0 per cent in the fourth.
"By the timing, it’s pretty good to do this," Wishart said.
Before the provincewide bargaining happens, "We look forward to a productive dialogue with the Manitoba School Boards Association and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society," the minister said.
Wishart said the wage controls will save school divisions $13.1 million for each one per cent of wages that would otherwise have increased. They went up in two phased-in 1.5 per cent increases this school year, and two per cent a year in each of the previous three years.
Bill 28 still allows incremental increases for eligible public-sector employees falling under wage controls, but Wishart said current incremental levels generally paid to teachers in their first decade would be part of the new bargaining.
"It would be, yes," he said.
MTS president Norm Gould said Wishart didn’t mention province-wide bargaining when they met last week, nor did he say anything about increments being on the table.
"I’m absolutely gobsmacked, blindsided," Gould said Thursday.
"It’s very disrespectful to the teachers in Manitoba. We’ve had labour peace in this province for many, many years. We have been an island of sanity in a world of craziness."
Manitoba has not had a strike or lockout in teacher bargaining for several decades.
As for the funding itself, Gould said it’s shameful and shows public education isn’t a priority for the Tories.
Wishart speculated the province could reduce funding to school divisions whose boards didn’t cap their school property taxes, though he said the two per cent is a guideline and not mandatory.
"I would remind you they are facing an election year" in October, he said. "We certainly believe this is doable. We have frozen their single biggest cost."
The new cap on administration costs would be three per cent of overall budgets for divisions with more than 5,000 students, 3.6 per cent for smaller divisions and 4.25 per cent in northern Manitoba.
Wishart said the new money announced Thursday would go primarily to enrolment growth in some areas, to greater special needs funding and to English as an additional language program for refugees.
The province will also claw back the $61.4 million in tax-incentive grants over the next six years, beginning this year by reducing the $7.5 million. No division will receive less than 98 per cent of the combined operating grants and TIG that it did last year.
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The NDP offered the TIG for four years up until 2011. It was extra cash offered as an incentive to freeze property taxes at the previous year’s rate that became a permanent part of a division’s funding, regardless whether or by how much it raised school taxes the next year. "It’s a policy tool. It was only mildly effective," Wishart said.
NDP education critic Matt Wiebe accused Pallister of not caring about the quality of education that parents want for their kids.
"This is the smallest funding increase in 18 years, and doesn’t even keep up with the growth of enrollment," Wiebe said. "What the government announced today is a de facto cut in the schools and classrooms that we rely on to educate the future leaders of our province. And for many teachers, today’s announcement means an absolute cut in what they can invest in our kids’ education.
"In addition, the ending of the tax incentive grant will leave a $61 million hole in the budgets of school divisions at the end of six years. Not only does this funding cut hurt students, but heavy-handed changes to the collective bargaining process are disrespectful," Wiebe said. "Brian Pallister is out-of-touch with the educational needs of a growing province. He promised to protect our front-line education, but today’s announcement shows he is only focused on the bottom line."
Change to school boards
Anyone running for school board in October better be ready for big changes, Manitoba Education Minister Ian Wishart warns.
The year-long comprehensive review of the $2.4-billion public education system Wishart will be launched later this year after school board elections.
“We need to do it right. This is the most important change in a generation,” Wishart said Thursday.
The review will examine how the public school system is financed by the province and by school boards, which have the last remaining taxing powers in Canada. The complex funding formula is largely based on enrolment and on the assessed values of properties within divisions.
Wishart would not prejudge whether school boards would lose authority, or even continue to exist, but said the review will cover “the roles and responsibilities of school boards and their taxing powers.”
He wouldn’t speculate about reducing the number of trustees on boards, nor would he predict the amalgamation of school divisions, but, “the most common comment (from the public) is, why do we have so many?”
If there’s amalgamation, it’s unlikely to be voluntary, Wishart said.