Judge settles school divisions’ long-standing tax battle with city

School divisions should receive tax exemptions on more of their facilities — even if traditional K-12 instruction doesn’t take place inside all of them, a judge has ruled.

For years, Winnipeg divisions and city officials have been at odds over whether bus depots and education resource centres should be treated like schools when it comes to municipal fees.

Court of King’s Bench Justice James Edmond sided with the divisions in a recent statutory appeal ruling delivered this week.

“The real property that is the subject of this appeal contains buildings that are used for a public school or for needs of a public school and therefore are exempt,” Edmond wrote in a 55-page decision dated Monday.

The Winnipeg School Division, on behalf of all affected divisions, sought a definitive answer on the taxation status of approximately 23 buildings located both within and near city limits.

The test cases that were reviewed include: 50 Monterey Rd., a resource and maintenance building that belongs to the Louis Riel School Division; WSD’s multi-purpose facility with teacher resources and tutoring at 1075 Wellington Ave.; and 1985 Grassmere Rd., a property used by Seven Oaks School Division for bus service and maintenance.

Edmond said all of them should be exempt from fees, although he indicated one area designated for mail distribution in the Wellington space is strictly administrative — and, like all division HQ — should still be taxed.

Manitoba’s Municipal Assessment Act states properties that are “used for a public (or independent) school” should not be taxed, with a maximum exemption of 4.047 hectares.

The City of Winnipeg’s interpretation of the legislation is that only active elementary, junior high and high schools qualify for the exemption.

Education leaders, however, have long argued all division grounds contribute to public schooling. On that basis, divisions have challenged numerous property evaluations in the past, and received mixed results from the board that presides over such appeals.

On Monday, Edmond concluded the city’s current approach is contrary to how laws and regulations are supposed to be interpreted in the province.

The judge cited a section in Manitoba’s aptly named Interpretation Act that states all statutes “must be given the fair, large and liberal interpretation that best ensures the attainment of its objects.”

“We’re pleased with the result,” said lawyer Mark Newman, adding school psychologists and social workers are among the professionals who work out of the buildings that have been at the heart of the dispute.

“The public school system plays a very large role in our society today. It looks after the physical, the mental, the emotional well-being of students.… The education system can’t function without all of these participants,” Newman said.

City communications officer Kalen Qually said the court decision and its implications are under review in order for municipal officials to determine next steps. An estimate of how much tax money is in question was not provided.

In an email, Qually noted this matter was brought before the courts “to clarify OVERSET FOLLOWS:inconsistencies in the French and English versions of the law.”

The bilingual edition of the assessment legislation shows there is a slight difference in wording between the two on the subject of granting exemptions. In English, buildings are to be exempt if they are “used for a public school,” while the French copy states eligible properties are “utilisés pour les besoins d’une école publique” (used for the needs of a public school).

Ultimately, Edmond said both linguistic versions are “equally authoritative” and he does not feel there is any true inconsistency between the two.

Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) and Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), both of whom are former school trustees, have been vocal about their views that the services these buildings offer are critical to modern education systems.

Mayes said he plans to advocate for the city to accept the decision and reimburse all affected property owners. He said the ruling marks “a thorough and well-deserved defeat of the city.”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press