Bletas: “They have to make the move”
By Joel Ceausu
“The population is screaming outrage about this,” says Steve Bletas. “it’s discriminatory against the English speaking population and it has to be rectified.
The issue is taxation, specifically the infamous inequality faced by the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, enshrined by section 308 of the Quebec Education Act, which ensures two school boards with jurisdiction over the same territory have different maximum tax rates.
“Why should neighbors have to pay two different tax rates if their children are getting the same education?” says Bletas, running for chair of the board in the Nov. 2 election.
It would be inconceivable in most jurisdictions and at most levels of government, but the inequity has been institutionalized in the 450 region where a property owner in the Laurentians whose children attend a SWL school can pay a stunning 200 percent more in school taxes than their French-schooled neighbours.
Throw in enrolment-choking language laws and budget cuts (about $4 million in the last two years from an approximately $160 million budget) and it’s the perfect storm to hobble a school system—possibly a community. This year the board had to cut $300,000 in services to students he says, because of the budget squeeze.
“We are going to go at this aggressively until they get sick of us. Those tax rates must be standardized.” Bletas says improvements can be made to the taxation scheme, if cities collect taxes through a line item, or boards partner to produce economies of scale in collections. But ultimately he says, rates must be equal and the only way that will happen is through government decree.
For years the issue has been brought up with successive governments, he says, yet keeps being shuffled to the next administration. “I don’t care anymore what government is there, they have to make the move.”
But the existential threat over Quebec’s school boards increases the urgency says Bletas, who took umbrage at Education Minister Yves Bolduc’s thinly-veiled suggestion that low turnout may jeopardize their future.
The Quebec English School Boards association (QESBA) has to take a more aggressive position on this says Bletas. The stunning lack of progress on such important files as taxation and voter lists are just some of the criticism leveled at the English board lobby group over the years. (QESBA’s new executive director is former Lester B. Pearson chair Marcus Tabachnick, who replaced David Birnbaum who in turn won the safe D’Arcy McGee seat for the governing Liberals in the last election.)
Also running under the Students First banner are Tracy Friedman, Frank Baker, Ailsa Pehi, Nicholas Bianco, Mike Pizzola and Steve Mitchell.
Bletas says on November 3 the new council will usher in an era of real transparency at a board that alienated many of its stakeholders over the last year or so.
Moreover, two seats will be opened up on council for students, he says, giving them a true voice for the first time.
One bit of communication he does not relish is having to justify new hires with parents and school communities.
“We made cuts to services to students, and then hired people at the board level. That grinds me to no end. We’re at about 13,500 students and we need two assistant directors-general? When we had more kids six years ago we had one who also doubled up as secretary-general.”
Does that mean a Bletas council will clean house in upper management? “No,” he said.
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