Education Minister Nancy Allen’s comment that she knows that Manitoba school divisions will sharpen their pencils in order to prevent significant property tax increases this year doesn’t carry much weight, according to a spokesperson for the Manitoba Education Funding Coalition.
“No one really knows at this time what the result will be,” said Lorne Weiss. “All we know is what happened in the past. Last year, despite the province increasing funding to school divisions by $25.5 million, there was still an education property tax hike that averaged 5.1 per cent across the province.”
Last year, Winnipeg School Division, the largest in the province, increased its share of property taxes by 7.8 per cent.
Last week, Allen announced a provincial government funding increase of 2.3 per cent to $27.2 million for Manitoba schools.
This year’s funding increase is directed to helping students “develop in math, reading and writing,” said the minister. In addition, the funding targets anti-bullying programs, continuing support for stay-in-school initiatives, and support for northern and remote students.
“Despite the uncertainty ahead,” said Allen, “we’re investing in our schools and our children while keeping property taxes low for all Manitobans.”
According to the minister, Manitoba’s property tax increase since 2000 has been “a modest 9.2 per cent, the lowest in Canada.”
But that doesn’t take into account studies, such as one by the Canadian West Foundation, that show Winnipeggers pay the highest education taxes on property when compared to residents of Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Regina. In 2009, Winnipeg had the highest residential property tax per capita of Canadian prairie cities at $407.
School divisions have yet to announce their budgets to the province, but the minister expects them to find savings to prevent tax increases, but acknowledged they have the “autonomy to make (their own) decisions.”
“It’s the same thing she said last year, and we know what happened — school taxes on property still increased,” added Weiss.
Weiss, a former president of WinnipegREALTORS® and the Manitoba Real Estate Association (MREA), said the province’s school divisions may not have announced their budgets, but they will soon.
“But what I find disturbing is that the school boards will not admit now that there are going to be property increases,” he added. “By the end of January, they have already prepared and know what their budgets will be. They should start now to prepare Manitobans for tax increases that are bound to occur.”
What some school officials have admitted is that the province’s increased funding spread out among Manitoba’s 37 school boards doesn’t amount to much for each division, which presents challenges to their budgets that may lead to increased taxes.
When the province increased funding by 2.2 per cent in 2012, overall spending rose by 3.29 per cent, and school boards then made up the difference by raising property taxes by an average of 5.1 per cent. This year, the amount received by school divisions and their overall spending situation remains virtually the same as was the case last year.
One trustee recently told CBC News that the Winnipeg School Division board is looking at the possibility of an eight-per-cent property tax increase this year.
Weiss said Winnipeggers can expect a double whammy, as council voted this week to accept a 3.87 per cent increase in the city’s share of property taxes.
In Winnipeg, education taxes represent 54 per cent of the levy on property, with the city’s share making up the remainder. In many rural municipalities, education taxes can represent a significantly greater proportion of the final property tax bill.
“With the average price of a Winnipeg home now over $250,000,” said Weiss, “people living in the suburbs and areas just outside the core area, such as Fort Rouge, Fort Richmond and Fort Garry, can expect a significant increase because of city and school property taxes.”
The Manitoba Education Financing Coalition supports removing education funding from property taxes and wants the province to fund education from general revenues. According to the coalition, education is a core service and is more properly funded from general revenues in the same way as health care and welfare.
“I think what we’re now seeing is a tweaking of the education funding system that doesn’t work and instead creates more problems than it solves,” said Weiss.
Weiss also said the province should at the very least start considering a reduction in the number of school divisions, especially in Winnipeg, in order to reduce
duplication and cut costs to keep school taxes down.
“Why should there be six sets of school divisions and six sets of boards in Winnipeg?” he asked.
“There is no indication from comparable statistics from other jurisdictions, such as Calgary with its one school division serving a larger population, that education outcomes are suffering,” Weiss added.
“Quality of education benefits more from directing funding resources to where they’re needed rather than governance.”
The Manitoba Education Funding Coalition is made up of a number of organizations, such as WinnipegREALTORS®, MREA, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce, Keystone Agricultural Producers, and the Manitoba Hotel Association, representing some 250,000 Manitobans.
The coalition has initiated the campaign, letspayfair.com, which urges Manitobans to approach their MLAs to take up the cause of eliminating education funding from property taxes.