Tax exemption for Aspengrove clawed back

Lantzville only third municipality in B.C. to rescind tax breaks for private schools.

Aspengrove School is calling on the province to take tax exemption decisions for private schools out of the hands of municipalities, after Lantzville officials voted to tax its property holdings.

The District of Lantzville has opted to uphold a September decision to deny Aspengrove a $6,070 tax exemption next year, making the institution the third independent school in B.C. to pay taxes on its holdings.

The move has not only sparked a tax fight that’s making its way to the legislature, but generated new debate about whether municipalities should give tax breaks to independent schools.

According to Lantzville council members, the municipality is already required to give tax exemptions for independent school buildings, but they have the right to decide if they should also give tax breaks for the rest of the property, like parking lots and playgrounds.

The majority of council members decided against an exemption for 2014, citing financial restraints and low participation in the school by Lantzville students. Twelve per cent of the school population is currently from the rural community.

Taxpayers who already pay for public schools through municipal taxes, would essentially be paying an additional education tax for the private institution and the subsidy, “would be going to 80-something per cent of people that don’t live in the community,” said Coun. Graham Savage.

However, school executives charge that the district is being closed-minded and unappreciative of what it offers the community in terms of attracting new residents and providing educational choices for families. Now as a result of the decision, the institution could face a total $14,000 to $20,000 annual tax bill and potential program cuts within its $2.5-million budget.

Board member Iain McIver said the higher cost to the school will mean the difference between hiring a teacher, giving a teacher a raise or giving children access to  its International Baccalaureate program through bursaries. There will be “tremendous hardship” ahead – highlighting exactly the reason why the province needs to make tax exemptions mandatory for all independent schools’ property holdings, he said.

The Federation of Independent School Associations B.C. will be taking the issue to the legislature on Aspengrove School’s behalf.

“We provide a community service, we are a … not-for-profit institution and yet this council saw fit to levy property taxes on us that they have the power not to,” McIver said. “Because you have a council as idiotic as this one, the decision-making process has to be taken out of their hands and the term ‘permissive’ has to be removed from the legislation.”

The District of Lantzville considers giving permissive tax exemptions to the same properties it approved the previous year, including the Costin Hall and Aspengrove School. But on Sept. 23, Coun. Jennifer Millbank made the motion to cut the independent school off the recipient list to save costs and direct support toward public schools.

The institution is generally a place that serves families of means and tax exemptions to them is money out of the pockets of parents who cannot afford to send their children to private school, she said.

The motion passed 4-3 and was upheld in a tie vote last week after a challenge by Aspengrove’s community.

The district is now the third municipality in the province to challenge permissive tax exemptions for independent schools, following Nelson and the City of Victoria.

Seaview Elementary parent advisory council president Cherie Alyward supports the decision because she hasn’t seen parents or school administrators participate in community-building events, like construction of a new memorial playground. Her advice now to the school: take a page out of the public school system.

“When we can’t meet [the] budget, things get cut. So in my mind, if you can’t make it, cut things,” she said

Aspengrove plans to fight to reverse the decision.

Zinda FitzGerald, principal of Aspengrove, said Lantzville’s recent decision is a step back for the school, which only started to receive permissive tax exemptions in 2011.

The school pays more than $7,000 in taxes for one of its properties and is responsible for its own water, sewer and private garbage collection. It also offers the community use of its playground and helps make Lantzville a destination for new residents and business investment.

It is one of the five International Baccalaureate schools in the province.

“We aren’t about to sit here and just accept [the decision] because it is … unfair and it’s time the provincial government stepped in to ensure schools such as ours don’t get hit in this way,” FitzGerald said.