Taxation inequity, transparency

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’re losing our tax base,“ said Bletas, leader of the Students First slate for the Nov. 2 election. “If property owners can choose between two vastly different tax bills, that’s money we lose out for programs for special needs services, bullying prevention programs and more.”

“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.”

Bletas told The Suburban that the current MNA cohort in Laval are allies, but laments that there was no progress and no pressure put on the government for the last two and a half years.
“All we heard is that it is on the agenda. That’s not good enough, it has to be on the table and I’m going to make sure it happens.”


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.

“That’s nerve to say that. He wants turnout, but we have to go to all this trouble to make sure that people who want to vote in our board can do so. It’s sickening how many people are automatically transferred to the French voting lists once their child graduates English school. I myself moved and was put on the French list. It’s an outrage.”

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.

“Council meetings will be televised live on the internet,” he said, “and for question period there will be none of that submitting questions 48 hours in advance. That’s over.”
Bletas also promises to have all commissioners’ expenses posted online—the Lester B. Pearson board already does, the English Montreal School Board is still wrestling with the issue.

Moreover, two seats will be opened up on council for students, he says, giving them a true voice for the first time.

“Council has the right to do it, and we can give them a strong voice in the board, something students tell me has been lacking, especially over the last year with the Laval high school issue. That’s real two-way communication.”

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.” 

Bletas – and running mate Mike Pizzola—voted against the second position. “I had absolutely nothing against the individual, but it was the second position I don’t believe in, specifically when we cut $300,000 from student services. That’s a six-figure salary.”

Does that mean a Bletas council will clean house in upper management? “No,” he said.

“Council decides but I will say that our team does not agree with maintaining a second ADG when numbers don’t warrant. I can’t justify it to the schools, the parents, or the taxpayers.”
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