School division budget lowers mill rate
PLPSD submits $39.8 million budget to
province on March 15
The Portage Citizen
The Portage la Prairie School Division (PLPSD) submitted its budget to the province March 15, ahead of most of the 38 school divisions.
Todd Cuddington, PLPSD superintendent says the approximately $39.8 million budget – presented to the public with fanfare at a public open house earlier – will save ratepayers “a modest amount” on their 2018 tax bill.
The recent budget buzz words “finding efficiencies” was again hammered home in setting the new budget. The school board had to meet a provincial government directive to keep tax increases below two per cent.
“There some specifics with this budget that came from the province regarding fiscal responsibility. The province wanted to reduce the amount being spent on administrative costs within the division, not at the school level, but within the administrative office.
“Our mill rate was decreased this year. In the end we came up with a fairly responsible budget and met the expectations the province set for us. I think we satisfied our tax base by not having an educational increase,” Cuddington said.
The mill rate is set at 13.748, a $7.32 decrease per $100,000 residential property value. The decrease is 1.12 per cent decrease over the 2017/18 mill rate of 13.876.
“It’s a modest decrease overall, but a decrease nonetheless,” he added. “We did that by being responsible with our spending and we had to cut programming.”
Bill 28, the provincial bill which caps public salaries meant the PLPSD benefitted by not having to pay staffing salaries. “That kept our costs down as well. As a result of that we didn’t have to go back to the tax payer.
“We ran a different format this year for the budget process,” the superintendent said the day before the school division submitted its budget to the province. “We started it earlier at the recommendation of our trustees. Previously we would meet with our principals to talk about educational programming, but it didn’t give the trustees enough time to go through it,” the superintendent said.
The process began in late summer 2017. The earlier meetings with principals and parent councils developed a wish list by December. “That gave us plenty of time for the business and finance committee to go through and make decisions.
“We knew with the trend we noticed last year with this current (provincial) government was the funding was not going to be guaranteed the way it had been,” Cuddington said.
In mid-January 2018, the PLPSD received its provincial government funding notice amounts.
“We received an increase, but only a very slight one. We realized that we were going to have to make some fairly tough decisions,” Cuddington said. “We had a fairly big wish list of things we needed to do.”
Part of costs PLPSD could not work around concerned accessibility projects. New legislation, the “Accessibility for Manitobans Act”, requires public organizations like the PLPSD to make their buildings physically accessible and remove attitudinal barriers. “We designated a lot of money towards those projects,” Cuddington said. “Accessible doorways and ramps have been part of the planning over the past few years and we wanted to continue those projects. We allocated a fairly substantial amount towards those capital projects.”
School bus fleets – always a hungry budget item – have to find comfortable funding for maintenance and replacement as needed. PLPSD recognized a number of buses in its fleet needed to be replaced. “We identified three buses that needed to be purchased in 2018/19. PLPSD will invest over $400,000 in three new buses.
A kindergarten pilot project became one of the budget casualties.
“We also had planned to continue on with our pilot project our “All Day – Every Day Kindergarten” that was launched this year and currently running with great results out of our Crescentview School,” Cuddington said. “Unfortunately, that was one of the programs we had to cut. As a pilot we wanted to roll it out into one other school this year, but when the funding announcement came through we realized we wouldn’t be able to do that.
PLPSD will continue with it technology initiatives – putting more devices into the hands of students – with its 2018/19 budget.
“We put a big investment into upgrading computer technology. Last year we ran a pilot with the (Apple) iPad project at Fort la Reine school and we are going to be rolling out Apple devices in other schools as well.”
A breakdown of the nearly $40 million budget shows 82 per cent is expended on salaries and benefits. The balance goes to services, supplies, minor equipment and capital expenditures. “It’s a large budget. We are one of the largest employers in the City of Portage, third or fourth largest after some of the industries,” Cuddington said.
“These tax dollars are an investment in the future. When we spend this money on kids you’re investing in your community and the future.”
Provincial austerity measures
“We knew this was coming. It wasn’t a secret,” Cuddington said. “The finance committee was well aware of the direction the province is headed and this is just the beginning. Recently the minister (Portage MLA Ian Wishart) has said that come October we’ll see the beginning of a review process in how education is funded in the province. They will look at how we deliver education at the local level. They will probably be having a conversation around amalgamation – reducing the number of school boards, reducing the number of trustees. They’ve also announced in the funding announcement that we would no longer be local bargaining with teachers,” he said.
There’s a lot of speculation on how a possible amalgamation of school districts would roll out. There are no shortages of examples in other provinces that have amalgamated their school boards and Manitoba’s 38 school divisions is ripe pickings for a provincial government looking for efficiencies by eliminating duplicity. “We are one of the last (provincial education) jurisdictions will have this type of decentralized delivery,” Cuddington said.
New provincial budget
The PLPSD superintendent says it’s early yet to pass judgement on the new provincial budget and how it will affect the PLPSD system.
“There is talk about how they will address the property taxes and how that will affect the educational tax portion, but not a lot that will have a tremendous impact with us, yet.
Directed to deliver a budget with an under two per cent increase and looming provincial purse tightening, the PLPSD finds itself always walking a thin budget line while prioritizing infrastructure needs in the division.
“We would like to spend more on those (infrastructure) projects, but those dollars aren’t available,” the superintendent said. “We focused on other areas.”
“The fact public salaries under Bill 28 were frozen meant that the largest portion of our budget wasn’t inflated because of salary increases. As a result of that we didn’t suffer the same we might have if that was coming.”