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School tax choices misleading: critics

That check-off box that directs what school district your property taxes support is meaningless and needs to go, say an Edmonton trustee, Morinville's mayor and a St. Albert education critic.

That check-off box that directs what school district your property taxes support is meaningless and needs to go, say an Edmonton trustee, Morinville's mayor and a St. Albert education critic.

Edmonton Public Schools is set to debate a motion from trustee Michael Janz Tuesday on whether the board should lobby the province to get rid of the property tax designation check-box on municipal tax bills.

Property owners currently have to indicate on their tax forms whether they want their education taxes to go towards the public or separate (Catholic) school system. The cash defaults to the public board if they don't.

But that check-box is meaningless and has no actual effect on the amount of money each student and board gets, Janz said.

For the last 25 years, the province has pooled education taxes and distributed them on a per pupil basis, he explained. These taxes account for about 30 per cent of school revenue, with provincial cash accounting for the rest.

Even if everyone in a neighbourhood checks the “public” box on their taxes and send their kids to Catholic schools, 100 per cent of their education tax dollars go to the Catholic system, Janz said.

“It doesn't actually make a difference in terms of how quickly a new school is built or money to hire teachers,” he said.

“The sole source of funding for your local school is the Minister of Education.”

Janz said the check-box confuses parents and taxpayers, as he often hears from people complaining to the board about them not building more schools or hiring more teachers. Eliminating the check-box would make parents more effective advocates for education, as they would know to target the province when it comes to funding.

“Why would we not want to be as clear and transparent as possible with parents?”

Meaningless box?

Separate boards technically receive their share of the school tax directly from municipalities based on the check-box, said Greater St. Albert Catholic superintendent David Keohane. This doesn't make a difference in practice, as the province alters its contribution to keep the total funds in line with public board students. The check-box would theoretically be of use if a separate board were ever to invoke its constitutional right to levy taxes, but the chances of that happening are incredibly remote.

The check-box is of no administrative use to the St. Albert Public board, said superintendent Barry Wowk. He personally would not care if the box were dropped.

“We get so much per pupil no matter what faith the parents are in.”

Municipalities make no use of the check-box, said Morinville Mayor Lisa Holmes, who is also chair of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association.

“There is nothing we need it or require it for.”

Holmes noted that the AUMA has previously called on the province to stop having municipalities collect education taxes for them, saying that it causes confusion and reduces the amount of room communities have to raise taxes.

“There's only so much tolerance taxpayers have to tolerate a tax increase,” Holmes said, and the province uses up a lot of it when it hikes education taxes.

It's also a headache at budget time, as communities can't set their tax rates until the province sets its education rate. Many communities hold off on big projects if they expect a big education hike is coming down the pipe.

Holmes suspected that the current system gave the province political cover when it comes to taxes.

“No one likes having to be the bearer of tax news.”

Luke Fevin, the co-founder of the Facebook group Albertan Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning, put out a press release Wednesday supporting Janz's motion.

“The checkmark is largely irrelevant,” he said.

Fevin said a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy request by his group found that the vast majority of Albertans direct their property taxes to public boards, with about $1.9 billion of the taxes collected in 2014-2015 coming from taxpayers who supported the public board and about $215 million coming from separate board supporters.

This works out to about $4,003 per public board student and $1,357 per separate board one, Fevin continued. Given that there are about 158,000 Catholic students in Alberta, this means that the province has to chip in about $418 million to make up the difference.

“The public subsidizes Catholic education by a minimum of $420 million every year,” he said, and may lose another $200 million a year due to the inefficiency of having two school systems.

In a press conference Tuesday, Education Minister David Eggen said that the check-box was part of provincial law and added to a sense of equality across the province.

“Honestly, I don't see any reason to change the system by which we are paying for education.”


A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to David Keohane as a trustee. He is actually the GSACRD superintendent. Sorry about that, David.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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