The Fort La Bosse School Division is sounding the alarm over changes to education that could be looming on the horizon.
A delegation from FLBSD recently presented its concerns to Virden Town Council and the RM of Wallace-Woodworth, among other councils.
It all stems from an impending review of Manitoba’s K-12 education system by the government. The Minister of Education, Kelvin Goertzen, plans to conduct a comprehensive, year-long review in 2019.
The process is expected to seek public input on a range of topics that includes two that FLBSD is most worried about: limiting or ending all divisions’ ability to levy school taxes; and the amalgamation of school divisions into larger, centralized bodies.
Fort La Bosse brass say they’ve studied the impact of both ideas and found neither would benefit the students or the taxpayers of southwestern Manitoba - in fact they warn of huge increases in taxes and a loss of control over how education dollars are spent.
The Virden-based school division wants local governments, other school divisions, and residents to be aware of what’s at stake before the Education Department launches its review.
1. The money problem
On the evening of Dec. 4, a delegation made up of Fort La Bosse Board Chair Garry Draper, Superintendent Barry Pitz and Secretary Treasurer Kent Reid went before Virden council to make their case.
Reid explained, “Manitoba is the only (province) left where school boards can raise revenue through property taxes. My counterparts in other provinces have regrets about what they’ve done.”
In those provinces, the government collects all education taxes instead of the school board, and the FLBSD delegation says that means a loss of control over how those dollars are used in local schools.
They fear the public might interpret the end of local school levies as “one less tax” and a saving for taxpayers. But Draper stresses it will not save money, only change the way it’s collected.
He predicts that if the Province starts collecting all school property taxes, the low mill rate Fort La Bosse currently enjoys (see graph) would disappear, blended into a single, across-the-board provincial rate, meaning taxpayers here would see “a very significant increase” in taxes.
In fact, he feels all school divisions across southwestern Manitoba “would be big losers”.
The shift to centralized decision-making would also eliminate local school divisions’ ability to tailor their programming to students’ needs.
For example, Draper points to his division’s junior kindergarten and apprenticeship programs. “Would (they) happen if we had to go to the government for money to run them? They’d probably tell us to get the funding someplace else.”
Reid warns that if all school tax money starts flowing from the regions to the Manitoba legislature, “The dollars we’re paying to educate our kids will go to Winnipeg and we won’t get them back.”
The FLBSD delegation’s other big fear is that the Education Department will force amalgamation of school divisions in a bid to save money. Draper has a reminder from recent history that bigger isn’t always better.
“In 2002, the government forced amalgamations of school divisions, promising a large saving. Instead, there was a $20 million increase in the cost of education. It backfired.
“Each division is unique, so putting four or five together, there will be no savings. There would be no benefit to students.”
Reid offered another reason to maintain the status quo. “If somebody has a question about their school taxes or anything, we can sit down with them, discuss it, there’s transparency.
“You lose that as you get bigger and further away from our centre. Closer accountability means more satisfied people.”
Caroline Cramer is the Virden mother of two school-age children, one with special needs, and she’s not impressed with changes she’s already seen in Manitoba education.
“I am personally affected by the Province’s recent change to their funding model for high needs students as well as removing the caps on classroom sizes.
“We had one-on-one support for my daughter which is not available this year. She’s struggling.”
Cramer is opposed to any attempt by the government to take away local school divisions’ control over their education spending.
Superintendent Barry Pitz also has children in the Fort La Bosse School Division. “I like that the taxes we raise here go towards our kids. There are other school divisions that want to get our dollars from here. We have something unique and I’d like to protect it.”
The three-man delegation from Fort La Bosse is rallying support from other municipal councils and school divisions in southwest Manitoba like Two Borders and Whitehead, which they say will also be affected.
Draper said, “We need your support to tell the government, ‘Leave us alone, we’re functioning fine. We don’t need to amalgamate. And if you take our taxing authority away, you’re still going to collect taxes from property assessments. So why not leave that in the hands of local people?’”
Draper wrapped up his presentation to Virden council with these words:
“We’re just here to urge people to partake in the (provincial) review next year and hopefully we can still have Fort La Bosse in five years’ time.”