St. James-Assiniboia school division identifies 4.1% tax hike, e-sports in budget

St. James-Assiniboia School Division trustees want to raise property taxes 4.1 per cent to maintain programs and make minor investments in vocational education, student services and e-sports.

Elected officials revealed the details of their $130-million draft budget for 2024-25 at a public meeting on Thursday.

The board will receive $51.9-million extra in baseline operating funding from the provincial government — an overall increase amounting to 0.7 per cent — to run its 26 schools next year.

Budget documents show its expenses, owing to growing student needs, aging infrastructure and inflation, are slated to rise 5.5 per cent.

“This means that we need to come to you, the ratepayers, to make up the difference,” board chairwoman Holly Hunter told a packed meeting room at division headquarters at 2574 Portage Ave.

The NDP government announced earlier this month it was reinstating school boards’ powers to raise property taxes in consultation with their respective communities to balance budgets.

On average, boards will receive 3.4 per cent more in provincial funding for next year. The allotments were decided based upon on student population size, enrolment fluctuations and the wealth of their property tax bases.

SJASD’s increase is the smallest of all metro boards due to declining enrolment and a higher-than-average assessment value among residences and businesses within its borders.

The current student population is 8,360. It is projected to decrease by 300 over the next five years.

Hunter said the percentage of students with additional needs, including mental health-related challenges, has been on the rise in the past three years.

“We have seen a three-fold increase in the number of students with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis,” said the East Ward trustee.

There are more kindergartners entering the school system with “profound needs,” while the number of young adults with disabilities who access programming until age 21 is growing, she said.

At the same time, Hunter noted there are shrinking options for school-aged children and youth seeking specialized day programs in their community.

The 2024-25 budget includes the addition of a single student services co-ordinator, increasing a team of two to three.

This staff member is expected to assist teachers with violence prevention and crisis response training and consult with stakeholders, including external therapeutic services and medical practitioners.

Trustees endorsed a $30,000 allotment to introduce vocational programming at John Taylor Collegiate and $15,000 to bolster an e-sports pilot program across the division.

“E-sports is a boundary-breaker, allowing students who are non-traditional athletes as well as traditional athletes to participate in a competitive environment, learning game skills as well as social, team-play, leadership skills,” Hunter said, adding participants are exposed to coding, design and other-tech related skills.

More than 50 people arrived at the board office to hear the budget breakdown.

Elected officials are anticipated to approve the final budget on March 5.

Maggie Macintosh , Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press