“We’re getting a message that everything’s on the table.”
– CAROLYN DUHAMEL, MSBA
Manitoba school trustees are watching closely as a Saskatchewan measure to strip local school boards of their power to levy education taxes takes effect this year.
The Saskatchewan move leaves Manitoba as virtually the only province in Canada where local school boards can set property tax rates to help pay for education.
Manitoba trustees worry they could be next in a national trend to remove school boards’ authority to tax locally.
So far, the NDP government is sending mixed messages, said Carolyn Duhamel, Manitoba School Boards Association executive director.
“We’re getting a message that everything’s on the table. We’re also getting a message that they don’t have the cash to replace (the money) that comes off education property tax, so eliminating that any time soon is not on,” said Duhamel.
Taking away school boards’ authority to set mill rates to help pay for the cost of running local schools might be popular with ratepayers, who see school taxes on their municipal property tax bills increase every year.
But that raises a bigger question. If the provincial government eliminated a main function of school boards, could it also eliminate school boards themselves?
Some trustees say losing the power to tax could be the thin edge of the wedge to eventually losing local autonomy altogether.
“Most trustees have always held that having access to the property tax was the bulwark of autonomy for school boards. Having that taken away lessens their autonomy,” said Roy Challis, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association.
“There’s always that fear that this is the first step.”
Saskatchewan residents’ tax bills still show a local school mill rate but it is now set by the province. Challis said a transition funding formula is in effect while the new formula is developed.
The local levy is an awkward issue for school boards who want to retain it while at the same time demanding the province assume a greater share of education funding.
“We think it should stay but we think it should not be as great as it is right now,” said Duhamel.
MSBA wants the province to fund 80 per cent of total education costs. The extent to which it does so now is a matter of debate, depending on what’s included. The government says it currently pays 74 per cent of the cost. MSBA says it’s more like 63 per cent.
Total annual education funding from property taxes, provincial and local, in Manitoba is around $750 million.
Paying for education through property taxes is a hot topic of debate, especially when local school taxes seem only to go up.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation considers school taxes levied on property essentially unfair, since they do not reflect an owner’s actual ability to pay.
CTF wants education taken off property and funded through the general tax base, said Scott Hennig, a spokesperson in Edmonton.
The question then arises whether society really needs local school divisions at all, Hennig said.
“When we take away those functions, the next logical question is, what are they doing? Are they providing any sort of service?
“We’re not overly calling for the elimination of all school boards. (But) in some cases, it is questionable as to what function they do serve anymore.”
Some argue school divisions are increasingly irrelevant as provinces whittle away at their authority and voter turnout for trustee elections is often pathetically low.
The Manitoba government in 2002 unilaterally amalgamated the province’s 54 school divisions into the current 37.
Duhamel strongly defended school divisions, calling them necessary because they respond to specific local needs.
“We feel communities are well served by having local school divisions. Education is not one size fits all.”
Many of the things school divisions pay for out of local levies, such as full-day kindergarten and nutrition programs, are not funded by the provincial treasury, she said.
Duhamel said the province gives lip service to local school divisions and says it sees value in them.
But trustees are nervously eyeing the Saskatchewan government’s action on local education levies, now that Manitoba is the last province standing, she said.
A provincial spokesperson would only say the government is “keeping an eye on what’s happening in Saskatchewan and looking at various options over the next year.”
A spokesperson for the Manitoba Teachers Society could not be reached for comment. [email protected]