Comment: The costs of evolving education in Manitoba

Some change may be necessary but a recent article offered a very simplistic interpretation

Schools are providing services on multiple fronts that require significant investment in training staff.

As a lifetime farmer and school trustee for over 25 years, I wish to give my perspective on an article in the November 15, 2018 edition of the Co-operator, by Alexandra Burnett and Rodney Clifton of the Frontier Center for Public Policy.

The article commented on how some policy changes by the provincial government are the answer to control rising education costs.

Although they may be correct in their figures and percentages they lack the reasons and understanding for the increasing costs of education. They seem to imply that education is a business and should be treated that way. They maintain that if education costs stayed at CPI costs our taxes would be much lower, but they do not factor in the reasons for the increasing costs of maintaining our education system. Many costs incurred by school divisions have outpaced and are not factored into CPI.

Staffing accounts for the majority of the costs within school division budgets. In many cases school divisions are subjected to the collective bargaining process. Education is unique in the fact that teachers cannot strike so divisions must, from time to time, accept conditions from arbitrated settlements which add extra ongoing costs such as noon hour supervision, prep time, maternity top-up and extra-curricular hours.

School divisions must also partially fund government initiatives and directives such as: workplace safety and health directives, accessibility requirements, daycares in schools, appropriate education and Grade 12 physical education.

Schools today are committed to providing services to deal with increasing medical, mental health and social issues that require significant investment in training staff. There is also an increase in maintenance costs to provide a safe and caring environment for students and staff.

School bus replacement and repairs, cleaning supplies, technology, fuel (carbon tax) and hydro are a few more examples of uncontrolled costs. A replacement diesel motor can cost over $20,000. Divisions have even had to replace defective boilers in schools at their own cost.

The local school is very important in communities so divisions open their schools after school hours for community use (as they should) but extra costs are incurred for things such as extra utility costs and sometimes adding extra custodial staff.

Burnett and Clifton put forward some policy changes that would control costs such as suggesting that all necessary resources would come from the provincial government as they do in other provinces. To eliminate education funding from property assessment would mean the government would have to come up with over $700 million from other sources.

It would take an additional three per cent sales tax to offset that. A recent Financial Post article claims that up to 40 per cent of Canadians do not pay income tax, so relying on income tax would put a tremendous extra strain on those who do. All provinces from Quebec west still fund education from property assessment but it is collected by the government and then redistributed to divisions.

A move to this model with a provincial mill rate would be detrimental to southwest and south-central Manitoba as most divisions there have a lower mill rate than the provincial average.

Burnett and Clifton suggest that smaller divisions could amalgamate. Amalgamation must be done for the right reason as there must be a benefit to student learning.

When the last round of forced amalgamations occurred there was a huge increased cost that is ongoing. Currently only about 3.5 per cent of school divisions’ expenses are administration costs, so in amalgamation the vast majority of expenses in combined budgets will still be there.

Burnett and Clifton maintain that the provincial government could control all aspects of public education. Currently the government sets direction for a basic curriculum and divisions respond to local community needs for supplementary courses and support.

You cannot have a “one shoe that fits all” because every community whether rural or urban has different needs and requirements. If the provincial government controlled all aspects of education, it would greatly reduce the autonomy of our local communities.

The current method of funding education came to be in the 1890s for a reason. Part of the reason was to split funding between the province and the local resident taxpayer. This gave the trustees the ability to respond to local community needs for the education of their students.

Property assessment was used because it was a consistent guaranteed stream of revenue. Those reasons are still very evident in today’s society. Assessment portioning has been adjusted in the past and needs to be looked at again.

The education special levy is applied to commercial businesses and that helps balance areas in the province with greater commercial assessment versus areas without. As well, the current education funding formula has an equalization proponent built into it, which further balances the inequity of assessment between divisions. There are currently five divisions that do not receive any equalization dollars while the highest equalization payment is $57 million. Thus, there are already measures in place to help balance the costs of education throughout the province to ensure all students in Manitoba are receiving educational opportunities.

The government has enacted an education review, which school divisions welcome, because if there are improved ways of delivering education, everyone benefits.

Garry Draper farms near Lenore, Manitoba and is a trustee with the Fort La Bosse School Division.

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