• Jim Mosher

Evergreen protects education services, programs; approves modest tax increase

Updated: Mar 14, 2019


Ruth Ann Furgala, left, chair of the Evergreen board of trustees and a trustee 26 years, and Evergreen Superintendent Roza Gray are concerned about the future. Finance chair Gladys Kohler echoes the sentiment looking forward. Kohler says the recently-approved budget worked within the lines drawn by the province but next year could be a different story.


Squeezed by government funding cutbacks, the Evergreen School Division administration and board of trustees have managed to protect the division’s innovative programs while incorporating key elements of a five-year education plan that focuses on core curriculum to improve student outcomes.


But it’s an open question whether Evergreen and other school divisions across the province will be able to achieve that balance next year.


Evergreen property taxpayers will face a slight year-over-year increase, according to budget documents for the 2019-2020 school year, which begins in July. Taxes for 2019-2020 are due this year.


The budget passed 6-0 Wednesday, March 6. Three trustees were unable to attend.


The division faces its second year of a two-per-cent reduction in provincial funding. While it managed to protect its existing programs and services, that may not be possible if the Pallister government continues its cuts to education.


The backdrop for concern lies in the government’s K-12 comprehensive review of education. The conclusions and recommendations from the review are expected early in 2020.


This time around, the board and administration were able to buffer the full impact of the funding cuts. Public-sector wages were frozen and have been frozen again for the coming year, with only modest increases in the ensuing years. The traditional about two per cent raises to staff are not factored in this year. Also cushioning the fiscal blow was a 1.96 per cent increase in portioned assessment, the basis for the annual tax levy.


Portioned assessment grew almost $20 million over the $998.075 million last year, a reassessment year — for the first time pushing it over the $1 billion mark.


Evergreen will go to the taxpayers for 39.81 per cent of its revenue requirement of $21.514 million, up 0.63 per cent from last year. The division’s special levy will generate $12.922 million, a two-per-cent increase, the limit mandated by the province. The mill rate rises 0.066 mills to 11.05 from 10.984 last year.



FINANCE CHAIR FEARS MORE FUNDING CUTS


In order to achieve the modest tax increase, the board did what it could, finance chair Gladys Kohler said. The overall trustees budget has been reduced by $22,000 for 2019-2020, which includes a reduction in the trustees monthly indemnity of $900 per year, as well as other reductions to conference and committee meeting per diems. In some areas, the number of committee and community meetings that trustees are reimbursed for has also decreased. That does not mean that trustees can’t attend more meetings; they just won’t receive the additional reimbursements.


“Given what we had to work with, I think we did an excellent job,” Kohler said March 7. She says next year may be a different story if the province continues its austerity approach to education funding. “That would be a really big challenge. It’s kind of scary.”


Kohler, who has 23 years of service as an Evergreen trustee, says she and her colleagues make their decisions based on what’s best for students. “We’re all here because of the kids, and we want to be able to provide the best programs and services that we’re able to offer them,” she said. “I think we have been able to do that with this budget.”


However, added Kohler: “If we experience the same funding cuts next year as we did this year, we may have to start looking at programs and services, which is not something I agree with, but we may not have any other choice.”



Evergreen board of trustees chair Ruth Ann Furgala says trustees took a pay cut "because it's better aligned to support the students".



Ruth Ann Furgala, chair of the board of trustees, says this year’s budget happened in different atmosphere. “It was a different budget to work on because of the continued erosion of funding and the stresses that we see in the school,” she said. “That’s why the trustees took a reduction in their indemnity — because it’s better aligned to support the students.”


In end, Furgala said: “We cut where we could.”


As well, she said, staff worked really hard to cut spending where possible, even though their wages are frozen.


Superintendent Gray says the near-status quo budget lengthens the timeline to upgrade, even maintain, core infrastructure, such as schools and bus purchases. Not a sustainable approach, she says.


“The rubber is going to hit the road,” Gray said. “We’ve extended the timeline for some of our infrastructure pieces. That’s a short-term solution. We will purchase our computers over a longer timeframe. We will extend the lifetime of our buses by refurbishing them; we will buy fewer of them.”


“But at some point, our assets become so under-maintained that there’s a massive increase that would be required. It’s a short-term win — but in the long term we can’t sustain that.”


There is a larger question at play. It's one that goes to the broader issue of the value of making an investment in the future, says Gray. She questions what's become the prevailing measure, the metric used to assess 'value'.


"The message that I sometimes struggle with is when people say 'oh you've done such a good job with your budget (tax levy) because it only went up 50 cents [a month].' Well, if we had done a really good job supporting our schools that doesn't really amount to a really small tax increase," the superintendent said. "But it depends on what the priority is. If our priority is that it has to be this way to make cuts — we've done a good job if that's the metric."


"If the metric is whether or not we're continuing to invest heavily in our students and meeting their needs then I don't know if the answer's the same."



PROVINCE’S K-12 REVIEW OPEN-ENDED


The superintendent also touched upon the province’s comprehensive review of K-12 education.


“There’s an undermining of education by not funding it this way,” she said. “I wonder whether the review is going to be authentic. Are they really going to honour some of the suggestions around improvement to our education system? We have concerns about the way this [province-wide education review] is unfolding; when they’ve already made a determination that they’re not spending more money on it.”


The government had, for instance, as early as January 2018, welcomed the input of boards and division administration. But a year later, with the review now under way, divisions are getting little feedback, says Gray.


“We were told that we would have an opportunity to have voice,” she said. “We’ve heard nothing about what that looks like yet. On their web site are two e-mail addresses. That’s all we have so far. I’m not sure how widespread their consultation is going to be.”


In a rare move, the division, in its budget statement, encouraged people “to discuss the importance of local funding and local autonomy as a part of the K-12 Education Review” by contacting: Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen at K12educationcommission@gov.mb.ca, Gimli MLA Jeff Wharton at gimlimla@mymts.net and Matt Wiebe , NDP education critic at matt.wiebe@leg.gov.mb.ca.


“We want people to be thoughtful about the autonomy and resourcing of local school boards, so that we can continue to maintain the services and programs that we have,” superintendent Gray concluded.


EVERGREEN BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS 2019-2020


Finance Highlights


The education tax on residential property valued at $200,000 will increase about $6 to $994.50, up from $988.56 last year.


* The total Division budget for 2019-2020 is $21,513,944, an increase of 0.63%


* Provincial funding now represents 58.84% of total revenue.


* Special requirement is now 39.81% of division's total revenue.


* The Special Levy has been set at $12,921,630 (an increase of 2.00%). The mill rate rises to 11.050 up from 10.984 or 0.066 mills from 2018-2019.


Provincial support to Evergreen School Division has decreased


• Provincial funding to the school division was reduced by 2% ($196,000). This follows a 2% reduction which occurred last year, as well.


• A limit of a 2% increase has been placed on the special requirement (portion of local tax).


The Division’s reality


• All staff contracts, including senior administration, are presently in a wage freeze.


• Trustees have reduced their overall budget by $22,000 which includes a reduction in their monthly indemnities.


• Wherever possible and appropriate, budgets have been reduced by approximately 3%.


• The Division has extended timelines for equipment and infrastructure replacement (including computers, buses, and the Gimli High School Band Room expansion).


• Through multiple reductions, at least 1.0 full-time-equivalent position will be reallocated from Division staff to schools.


• Administrative expenses are below 3.45% of budget.


With the cuts and wage freezes presently in place, the Division has been able to maintain support for the following initiatives/priorities:


• Teacher time (interventions) dedicated to supporting students who struggle

• Support for small high schools (RCI and ACI each offers core credit requirements).

•Student services supports including Educational Psychology, Speech and Language, Occupational/Physical Therapy, Student Support Worker, Educational Assistants.

• Mature student graduation diploma program.

• “Equity Grants” provided to schools to reduce fees for students and families.

• Junior Kindergarten at two half days per week and Kindergarten at three days a week.


Summary Comment


If provincial cuts to school funding continues, the Division will not be able to maintain the present level of programming and services in our schools.

— Evergreen budget statement


Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I served as an Evergreen trustee from 2014-2018.

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