Winnipeg school divisions say funding increase doesn’t keep up with growing student populations

Educators who gathered in Winnipeg for an annual convention this week say the money doled out to school divisions from the province this year isn’t enough to keep up with rising costs — especially for divisions seeing spikes in enrolment.

While costs are rising across the board with inflation, some divisions are also seeing more students than expected, making it even more difficult to budget for the upcoming year, said Sandy Nemeth, board chair for the Louis Riel School Division.

Her southeast Winnipeg division had almost 550 new students this year, she said.

Last month, the province said every Manitoba division would get an increase of at least 2.5 per cent in operating dollars for the upcoming year.

But Nemeth said that comes after years of underfunding. That means the increase her division got wasn’t enough to prevent it from deciding to dip into its surplus for the first time in its 20-year history in order to maintain programs, she said.

“It’s not enough. It hasn’t been enough for a while,” she said on Thursday, the first day of the Manitoba School Boards Association’s annual convention in Winnipeg.

The division decided to draw from its surplus “because to start cutting programs and services is a giant step backwards,” she said. “And we don’t want to be about going backwards.”

For the Louis Riel School Division, the increase in funding this year came out to $8.1 million, between operating support and the property tax offset grant, according to a document the province shared when it announced its school division funding last month.

That funding announcement was touted as a significant investment in the school system by Education Minister Wayne Ewasko.

Ewasko said in an emailed statement on Thursday that the division got an 8.4 per cent funding increase this year, building on increases of 6.1 per cent last year and 11.8 per cent the year before.

Division increasing taxes

Manitoba School Boards Association president Alan Campbell, who also chairs the Interlake School Division north of Winnipeg, said once the school year starts, the budget is locked in. That means funding for any additional students doesn’t come for a while.

“If you have a significant group of families move into the division in the middle of October, for example — so pretty early in the school year — they don’t actually get funding to support those students until the next school year,” Campbell said.

A man in a suit and tie with a lanyard around his neck speaks inside a hotel.
Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association and board chair for the Interlake School Division, says schools only get money for new students who arrive after the start of the school year in the following school year. (Travis Golby/CBC)

For divisions like northwest Winnipeg’s Seven Oaks, that’s become a problem.

Superintendent Brian O’Leary said Seven Oaks has welcomed about 250 newcomers from Ukraine alone in the past year, on top of generally being “a major landing spot for immigration” in the province.

The division is expecting a three per cent jump in students this fall, but it’s only getting a two per cent increase from the government, he said. The province said last month the increase for Seven Oaks comes out to $3.3 million.

The division has decided to raise property taxes to maintain its levels of teaching staff and student programs.

“You can put off buying a school bus … [or] buying computers for a year. You can’t put it off year after year,” O’Leary said.

A man in a button-up shirt and suit jacket looks concerned standing next to a statue.
Brian O’Leary, superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division, says his division has had to raise property taxes this year to maintain services. (Travis Golby/CBC)

“We’ve cut staff — and even this budget, I would say, is status quo, minus a bit.”

Resources for newcomers

Nemeth said it’s critical that divisions like Louis Riel get not only money to cover the extra students, but funding for the supports they need.

“Many of these students are immigrants and may be coming from countries where there has been a conflict. And part of the process is to make sure that they’re ready for school and that they have everything that they need,” she said.

Ewasko’s statement said the province already announced $900,000 in November to increase the Intensive Newcomer Support Grant to a total of $1.8 million this school year.

He added urban school divisions “have seen some of the highest increases in funding the past couple of years.”

Nemeth said while school administrators are working hard to make things work with the money available, that stress can have an effect.

“The beauty of the public education system right now is that everybody is giving 150 per cent,” she said.

“Everybody’s going hard — but then again, that takes a toll too, right? So you think about the mental health side of things: teachers are stressed, staff are stressed, families are stressed. It’s just more and more.”