Manitoba

Education minister 'playing hardball — but education is not a game,' school board letter says

The Winnipeg School Division board is demanding an emergency meeting with Premier Brian Pallister to ask how they can fund improvements in education when the province is effectively preventing them from hiking property taxes as much as they want.

Provincial government says divisions that raise taxes above 2% cap will see administrative funding cut

The Winnipeg School Division is asking the province to explain how it can fund accessibility improvements without more money from the Tory government. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

The Winnipeg School Division board is demanding an emergency meeting with Premier Brian Pallister to ask how they can fund improvements in education when the province is effectively preventing them from hiking property taxes as much as they want.

In a letter to the premier on Tuesday, the board of Winnipeg's largest school division asked how it could complete lead testing in drinking water, install new backflow prevention devices required by the city's water bylaw and meet the needs of the province's new accessibility act "without the ability to increase its revenue."

The letter was written after Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen told reporters Tuesday that any school division that raises taxes above the two per cent cap would be penalized with a reduction in administrative funding.

The Winnipeg School Division board was told last week the province would reduce the amount any division could spend on administration costs from three per cent of the total budget to 2.7 per cent as of July 1. The board was also told the limit would be slashed to 2.4 per cent if it went ahead with a property tax increase of more than two per cent.

Finance chair Lisa Naylor told CBC News the minister has "basically handcuffed us" and the board feels it has no choice but to scale back its property tax ask from the desired 2.9 per cent. The board will vote on this on Monday. 

The letter from division chair Chris Broughton says the province's new cap on administrative spending is an attack on public education.

Public feedback 'moot'

"Minister Goertzen came out with this mandate, fully aware that school boards have already completed their community consultations on draft budgets, essentially making feedback on proposed additions moot," Broughton wrote.  

"The punitive nature of this cap and additional measures preventing school divisions from seeking revenue from its own constituents is divisive and causing turmoil in our education system."

Goertzen is "playing hardball — but education is not a game," the letter says.

Broughton's letter references several financial pressures on the division. 

It says drinking water testing will cost as much as $500,000 and the division needs $420,000 over the next three years to install isolation backflow prevention devices.

The division also said it needs $605,000 for accessible washrooms, $437,186 for automatic door openers and $323,400 for ramps to be in line with the province's accessibility act.

We're hearing from the minister through the media and through Twitter … I guess that's how we're going to have to communicate- Chris Broughton, Winnipeg School Division chair

Broughton said Wednesday morning the school division has made five requests to get a meeting with Goertzen, to no avail. He said the minister has taken an adversarial approach to dealing with the division.

"Ultimately, we're hearing from the minister through the media and through Twitter, and if that's the only way he wishes to communicate, then I guess that's how we're going to have to communicate."

The minister chastised the division last month on Twitter for the size of its bureaucracy.

Ratepayers who attended the division's budget consultations understood the need to boost taxes because of a reduction in provincial revenue due to lower enrolment, Broughton wrote.

WSD creating an emergency: Goertzen

Goertzen brushed off the school division's concerns as problems of their own making.

"I'm not going to run to have an emergency meeting about an emergency that they've created that nobody else seems to be having," he said.

"They willfully and almost immediately decided to ignore that [directive], and this is the outcome," he said. "I can't imagine that they're surprised, even though they might feign surprise now." 

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen argued the Winnipeg School Division shouldn't be surprised that there's a penalty for defying the province's directive on property tax increases. (CBC)

Goertzen said he would answer questions from the province's board chairs during the Manitoba School Boards Association convention next week.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew argued the province is painting the school division into a corner.

"I think this is what happens when you try and govern by tweet — there's a lot of room for misinterpretation," he said.

"Decision-making is centralized in the premier's office, so it makes sense to try and talk to the premier himself."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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