‘Digging ourselves out of a hole’: Manitoba school divisions prep for new funding test

Urban and rural superintendents are likening the latest provincial education funding announcement to life-support for public schools, although some still anticipate staff and program cuts will be required to balance upcoming budgets.

Manitoba revealed how much funding every division will receive in 2023-24 this week and, for the first time since the Tories were elected seven years ago, all 37 boards were promised a 2.5 per cent or more increase in their total dollars.

“We are digging ourselves out of a hole,” said Christian Michalik, superintendent of the Louis Riel School Division. “The hole is big, but we’re digging in the right direction: we’re digging up, not down.”

The Manitoba School Boards Association, Manitoba Teachers’ Society and other K-12 leaders are in agreement the latest release provides relief in that it shows the province has heard stakeholders’ concerns about the consequences of underfunding.

Division staffers are crunching numbers to figure out budgeting scenarios, following years of austerity directives, combined with historic inflation levels and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Budget constraints have prompted boards to end specialty programs, cut employee hours, lay off staff, seek out alternative funding sources, and run deficits in recent years.

Ahead of this year’s announcement, Lakeshore School Division trustees penned a letter to the province to warn continued funding gaps would lead to severe core service reductions and front-line staff layoffs in the rural district.

“Entire programs, including courses required for university entrance, arts, technical/vocational training, and early years numeracy and literacy support would potentially need to be eliminated to balance our budget. Further funding inadequacies could bring into question the viability of keeping all of our schools open,” states an excerpt from the board’s Jan. 12 letter.

Donald Nikkel, superintendent of human resources and policy, said the good news is the Eriksdale-based division will receive a 2.8 per cent funding increase next year, but cuts are once again “inevitable.”

“After years of funding reductions, it is at a point where, in order to turn the ship around, you would actually need to see really significant increases,” he said, noting the division has scrapped almost all of its student services department.

Despite reducing a bus route to limit expenses last year, the division — which claims that combined, its drivers travel the distance of a return-trip to the moon in any given school year — is also grappling with busing costs, among other growing expenses.

Education Minister Wayne Ewasko cited inflation-related hikes in transportation as one of the reasons the province announced an “astronomical” funding commitment of $100 million in new K-12 money.

Manitoba’s largest geographical district had its fuel costs rise 60 per cent from December 2021 to December 2022.

Superintendent Reg Klassen said what has saved the Frontier School Division from reductions is, despite aggressive recruitment efforts, the board has been unable to fill all open teaching positions. The northern division is short more than 20 teachers at present, and has temporarily closed a school because of a staffing shortage on more than one occasion this year.

The Frontier and Seven Oaks divisions will receive among the lowest annual funding increases — a stark contrast to Pembina Trails and Beautiful Plains, two of the fastest-growing districts in the province.

“We’re facing a pretty significant gap,” said Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O’Leary. “We’re anticipating a return to significant growth next year, and we’ve got a significant number of Ukrainian refugee kids coming to our system every day.”

Michalik echoed concerns about the upcoming budget season being another challenging one.

“With increased enrolment and increased needs relative to a pandemic and an economic crisis impacting families and those most vulnerable in our community, (the new funding) is still not enough,” he said.

Spokespeople from the Winnipeg, River East Transcona, Pembina Trails, and St. James-Assiniboia divisions indicated they were analyzing figures Friday. None of them provided official annual increases nor budget projections.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press