For years, farmers have called on the province to change how public schools are funded and to remove education tax from farmland. Now, it appears a funding overhaul could finally be on the table.
After being questioned by NDP MLA Wab Kinew during a supply committee meeting last week, Education and Training Minister Ian Wishart acknowledged that local taxation authorities would be examined under a broad review of education planned by the Tory government.
“We did commit to a full consultation process,” Wishart told the committee. “We haven’t put a final date on that yet as the call for proposals and such is still in development, and that will be determined… but we did commit to being very detailed… the funding of the schools would be part of that program as well.”
When pressed for details, the minister added that, “I think that everyone knows that (the formula for education tax) has been in place for a large number of years. There is fairly widespread level of — you won’t call it dissatisfaction, but awareness that it is not meeting the needs.”
To date, the Manitoba government has not publicly announced any review of education funding and would not provide further comment on the issue due to restrictions on government communications during the campaign for an upcoming byelection in Point Douglas.
A funding review would be a positive first step in the eyes of many producers.
“Education is costing our rural communities more every year and something is going to break and I just hope it’s not farmers,” said Keystone Agricultural Producers president Dan Mazier. “Something needs to change in how we fund it and for the minister to say that is good, it’s good they are looking at.”
Farmers can apply for an education tax rebate, but it’s been capped at $5,000 for the last several years and updated municipal assessments last year resulted in some producers to see their tax bills soar by as much as 50 or 60 per cent.
Inclement conditions, like the excess moisture seen in 2011 and 2014, have also left many farmers on the hook for taxes on land that could not be planted in recent years.
“For years, ever since we can remember, we’ve been asking them to take education taxes off of production buildings and land,” said Mazier. “The problem with the way it is set up now, is that it doesn’t reflect the ability to pay and that is always a fundamental problem.”
He added that the general farm organization has reached out to other organizations such as the Manitoba School Board Association, to come up with new options and strategies for reducing producers’ tax bills.
“We have realized that our request of no education tax on farmland and production buildings was getting pretty tired and long in the tooth and that we need to have a new approach,” he said. “So we are giving them options.”
Part of that approach includes calling on the provincial government to once again provide 80 per cent of education funding. Currently the Manitoba government only funds about 60 per cent of the cost, leaving municipalities to provide the rest. Education funding this year also saw the lowest increase since the 1990s — less than one per cent.
However, Mazier — a former school board trustee — notes dealing with education funding will require a multi-faceted approach involving all stakeholders, as well as a close look at what education means, what is essential and what is not and how it’s delivered.
“But a review is a good first step,” he said.