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CRPS backs away from tax levy

The Canadian Rockies Public Schools Division plebiscite proposal is dead.

The Canadian Rockies Public Schools Division plebiscite proposal is dead.

The school board defeated a motion on Tuesday (June 18) that would have paved the way for a potential education tax increase, which could have raised an additional $650,000 a year for the division and covered it’s $256,000 deficit.

Backing down from a potentially divisive plebiscite debate, the school board, along with other small, rural boards, will now continue to lobby the government to change the funding formula, which it says is inequitable and broken.

“It’s obvious the real issue is the funding formula — it’s unfair and inequitable,” said CRPS board chair Kim Bater.

The plebiscite proposal generated a great deal of attention for the school board, which it used to highlight the financial difficulties the division faces with the current funding formula.

After years of cuts to teachers, custodians and librarians, trustees said the revenue the levy would bring tempted them, however the board voted against the plebiscite by a 6-1 decision. Trustees were weary a plebiscite would move attention away from the good work the school board is doing and onto financial issues.

“My concerns are on the sell. All of the good stuff we do … would be derailed,” said trustee Amanda Kelly. “I know the cash would make a difference, but in the long term, I’m not sure if there is a gain.”

“For me, the more I talk to people and examine it on its own, I feel the plebiscite would take away from the conversation,” Bater said. “I’m not sure moving ahead with a plebiscite is the right idea. Does it just get in the way? We’ve come so far in terms of communicating with the community.”

Esmé Comfort was the lone trustee in favour of moving forward on the plebiscite. She saw it as one more step the board could make to draw attention to the funding inequality.

“I’m tired of being the good school board. We have to make a statement. For years we’ve watched our funding erode, and I’m fed up with it,” Comfort said.

The school board used an Internet survey to gauge public appetite for the plebiscite, and the results came out slightly in favour of the tax, which could have generated up to $650,000 per year for three years. Of the 431 respondents, 55 per cent said they supported the levy, while 45 per cent were against.

The province funds school divisions based on student numbers. Under the current formula the school board receives $6.7 million from the province, even though the region pays $25 million in education taxes. This inequity is one of the worst in the province. On top of that, the school board has higher cost of living, 80 per cent of its teaching staff are at the top of the pay grid, and higher maintenance costs than Calgary. Several grants used to help the small, rural board, however they’ve been scaled back. Bater said the school board needs to fund the true cost of operating the school divisions. That includes paying for the actual cost of staff and goods and services.

For the past seven years, the school board has been in discussion with the Ministry of Education about the funding formula, while exploring other revenue generating and cost saving options. Essentially, the school board passed its deficit budget and brought up the tax hike as a way to send a message to Edmonton it had exhausted all other options.

“In the short term, we have submitted a deficit budget. We have created a strong rational for the decision and maintain the quality in the classroom we believe is necessary,” Bater said.

The Ministry of Education was invited to examine CRPS books and Bater said the Minister of Education Jeff Johnson understands their situation and knows the school division is working hard to increase revenue. Superintendent Chris MacPhee told the board he anticipates enrollment to increase next year, while the number of international students in CRPS schools will double. The potential revenue from those two sources could be more than enough to cover the division’s $256,000 deficit. However that money isn’t a stable funding source, which is something the school board needs as it goes forward.

“As we manage with less money, we need to look at cost savings and revenue generation. We have to do so in a way that’s ethical and it has to be connected to public education.”

Bater said his next step is to arrange another meeting with Minister Johnson, and bring along the school councils to give a first hand account of how cuts to education affect local schools.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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