The Fort La Bosse School Division (FLBSD) will reduce or cut some of its education programs for the upcoming school year in order to balance its $18.9 million budget – a “tough, tough decision” the board has managed to avoid so far.
For the third year in a row, the division is scrimping to live within reduced provincial funding even though its costs have gone up the past eight years.
The division held a public meeting Feb. 27 at their Virden offices to seek community input on the dilemma. A small group of about a dozen teachers, trustees and division staff attended.
Secretary-treasurer Kent Reid told them, “We’ve been to transportation, maintenance, administration, technology (to make cuts) … it’s starting to come to where it’s hitting the schools and this year, we’re there. It will affect school programming in this budget year.”
Specifically, the board is looking at pulling back the junior kindergarten program and alternative education at the high school level.
Superintendent Barry Pitz said, “These (programs) are extras our division has put in because they are valuable, but we have nowhere else to turn. Something has to give.”
And he cautions that the future could hold more cuts to things like band classes or power mechanics if the province’s funding shortfalls and taxation caps continue.
The biggest stumbling block is the two per cent cap on property tax increases imposed by the Education Minister. School divisions rely heavily on their ability to tax local residents for education; it’s the source of 43 per cent of their budget.
In past years, the board found creative ways to cut spending. Last year four trustee positions out of ten bit the dust, and school buses took a hit.
Reid said, “We don’t budget for school buses anymore. They’re getting older and the buses our kids are in are going to get less safe if we keep on that path.”
That last point was upsetting to Mayor Murray Wright who attended the meeting.
“I worked on the buses for FLBSD years ago.... I don’t want to see anyone die, especially a child, because of a grownup’s ideology of how things should be done when they have no idea.
“I’d love to sit down with the Minister of Education and his staff and find out why this is happening…. because my grandchildren will be affected.”
Reid explains that the division has to pay rising costs that are beyond its control, particularly salaries.
“Eighty-three per cent of our budget is salaries, but half of our teachers are still on the grid so there are rising payroll costs.” (The grid is the salary scale negotiated in the teachers’ collective agreement.)
The Provincial Education Minister will soon be launching a K-12 education system review, including public meetings to gather feedback.
The government isn’t ruling out copying other provinces and taking away school divisions’ ability to levy education taxes locally. Instead, the Manitoba government would collect all education taxes and distribute the funding to divisions.
Reid predicts if that happens, education taxes would go up, not down, and divisions like Fort La Bosse would be at risk of losing local control over staffing and education programs.
In a recent opinion piece, the President of the Manitoba School Boards Association, Alan Campbell, said school divisions must maintain their ability to levy taxes, otherwise “communities across Manitoba would be forced to go hat in hand down to Broadway for funding each and every year, even as decisions made for the local community would in fact be made outside that community.”
It appears most Manitobans agree with him. In Sept. 2018, a Probe research poll found that 56 per cent want to keep the current system of locally-elected school boards instead of amalgamated or direct provincial oversight.
Only 23 per cent thought larger boards were better and a scant eight per cent prefer schools to be managed by the province.
A large majority, 81 per cent, agreed with the statement that, "It's an important democratic right for Manitobans to directly elect their own representatives to oversee their local public schools."
The trustees and administration at FLBSD are hoping the public comes out in droves to reinforce that message when the Minister of Education brings his K-12 review panel to town in the next few months.
Meanwhile, the division’s budget for the next school year will be approved at their Monday, Mar. 11 evening meeting, which is open to the public.