In 1994, the Klein government stripped Alberta school boards of their ability to freely raise revenues through the use of local school taxes levied on property. Instead, the government funded education through general revenues and a province-wide school property tax.
Over the past decade, K-12 education funding has increased by 85 per cent. Despite such large increases in funding (actually, astronomical increases considering the number of K-12 students has only grown by three per cent since 1998-99), Alberta’s new Education Minister, Dave Hancock, recently suggested in may be time to give Alberta’s 62 school boards “some of their taxing authority back.”
What Minister Hancock failed to emphasize is that school boards still do, in fact, have the ability to increase local school property taxes. Thankfully, this ability requires the consent of voters.
In 1994, school boards were given the ability to hold a special levy plebiscite in conjunction with a municipal election. These plebiscites can request a local tax hike to cover up to a three percent increase in their budget for each of the next three years. Since 1994, five municipal elections have taken place, meaning that Alberta’s 62 school boards have had five opportunities to take any funding increase request directly to their taxpayers.
Tax hike plebiscites have only been attempted five times; twice in Medicine Hat, once in Lethbridge, once in Grande Prairie, and once in the Grande Yellowhead Division (Jasper, Edson, Hinton, etc.) Each time voters have rejected the request. In the most recent municipal election, the Grande Yellowhead tax hike was voted down by 77 per cent of voters, and the Grande Prairie hike was rejected by 62 per cent of voters.
The fact that 94 per cent of school boards have passed up five opportunities each to ask taxpayers directly for more funding is an indication that: a) school boards must not really want the power to tax, or b) school boards know they cannot make a convincing case to taxpayers for more funding. Either way, by not using this power school boards have helped emasculate themselves.
It has been argued that most school board trustees have become little more than lobbyists. (Unfortunately, they were exempted from having to register with the provincial lobbyist registry). This truth is even more apparent during school board elections when trustee election platforms are riddled with promises to “fight” for more provincial school funding.
By not using the power they currently have to request more dollars directly, trustee complaints of education underfunding lose all credibility.
Regardless, the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) is welcoming the idea of giving boards back the ability to levy their own taxes.
Obviously, what the ASBA wants is not the ability for school boards to raise their own funds, as they have that already, but rather the ability to raise funds without the approval of voters.
This end-run around voters, who have five times told school boards they felt no further funding was necessary, is completely un-democratic. It will also undoubtedly lead to higher property taxes for Albertans.
The current provincial policy not only reduces the reliance on regressive property taxes to fund schools, but protects taxpayers from an un-democratic attack on their wallets from school boards who are either too gutless or disingenuous to ask for more money directly.
If the Alberta government gives school boards the authority to increase school property taxes at will – without consent of the people who will be footing the bill – it will be a slap in the face of taxpayers and a step backwards in accountability.