Clouding the issue



Manitoba Real Estate Association political action committee member Lorne Weiss has an interesting theory. “I believe the school boards buckled in to the minister of education (Peter Bjornson) over the issue of funding support in return for property tax freezes because they feared for their very existence,” said the past-president of WinnipegREALTORS®.

Weiss’ theory is that the threat to use the Tax Incentive Grant as a club against the school trustees to make them tow the line was extremely effective. 

When Weiss expounded his theory, what had not been revealed by the provincial government was another plan that adds more credence to his original theory. On April 18, Bjornson announced legislation that would place a moratorium on school closures across the province. In effect, the education minister was removing one of the tools  — and a symbol of their autonomy — school boards utilize to deal with declining enrolment in divisions.

For its part, the provincial government has come under increasing pressure to do something about rising property taxes levied by school boards. The greatest pressure came from a coalition of organizations, ranging from seniors, farm groups, property owners, chambers of commerce across the province,  the Manitoba Real Estate Association and the WinnipegREALTORS® Association. In total, the coalition represents some 250,000 Manitobans and is a lobby group that cannot be easily ignored by the NDP government.

The aim of the coalition is to have the province remove education funding from property taxes and finance education by using general revenues, as is the case with health care. The coalition believes education provides a societal benefit in the same manner as health care.

On the other hand, the provincial government has only proposed providing 80 per cent of education funding from general revenues by 2011-12.

The education minister found that threatening schools to use surpluses accumulated over the years to mitigate the effect of increased taxation was not working.

But, there was another plan ready to go forward in the event of obstinacy on the part of school boards. On January 29, the province announced a $53.5-million funding increase for public education provided school boards did not raise property taxes and capped spending. At the same time, the province also imposed new programs, such as physical education on schools, and depreciation of equipment such as buses.

Unfortunately for the government, some school boards found that the new funding came with a cost — school divisions would receive more funding under the existing tax-and-spend structure if they simply refused to take part in the tax incentive.

Manitoba school boards were dissatisfied with the incentive, so Bjornson had to revamp the program.

“Discussions have been ongoing since the funding announcement and a number of concerns were raised by stakeholders,” said Bjornson in a March 4 press release. “based on feedback from school divisions, we are committing to a multi-year approach to the tax incentive grant to help them meet the needs of students and parents.

“We will work together within a financial framework that is sustainable for government and property taxpayers, while taking into account pressures on school division budgets.”

The most recent announcement of placing a moratorium on school closures was like a bolt out of the blue for school divisions which had no inkling the education minister was going to take this new course.

The announcement is particularly troubling for boards in rural divisions where declining enrolment has been a significant issue for years. For many rural school boards, the only realistic option available to keep costs down is to close schools with dramatic enrolment declines and move the students to other schools within the division.  

“Having local public schools is vital to the quality of the total education experience, especially for young children,” said Bjornson when announcing the moratorium. “Schools also play an important role in communities, especially in rural areas, as gathering places for social and cultural events, athletics, community meetings and adult education.”

All of this is true, but often it is not economically viable for rural centres with a limited population base to keep a school open for the reasons cited by the minister. It is more cost-effective to keep redundant schools open in urban centres where the population allows such uses. For the cultural and social events cited by the minister, rural areas usually possess multi-purpose community halls. 

“To determine the most effective ways to use these buildings to serve their communities on a long-term basis, we will consult with school divisions about the regulations,” said Bjornson.

Unfortunately, consultation may be futile when it makes little economic sense. Even the new money offered by the province to keep such schools open may not resolve the economic situation. 

The one indicator that there is light at the end of the tunnel is that Bjornson said school closures will be allowed under “exceptional circumstances.” And, closures voted upon prior to January 1 this year will be allowed to proceed.

The amalgamation of school divisions, a tax incentive tied to property taxes and a moratorium on school closures smacks of political interference, according to some trustees, suspicious of the government’s motives.

There may not be some great conspiracy on the part of the provincial government to end school boards, but in politics perception is everything. For school boards, the perception is that their autonomy is slowly being eroded with the only result being their eventual demise as a locally-elected entity. 

In a Free Press report last week, Louis Riel board chairman Hugh Coburn is quoted as rhetorically asking, “Is this the beginning of the end for school boards?”

Actually, it may or may not, although Weiss would argue that the education minister’s recent announcements are a real threat to school boards.

He would also point out the province is throwing up a smoke screen rather than addressing the real issue — it should immediately move toward funding public education entirely from general revenues.