Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rural divisions sort through school closings

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Rural school divisions got Education Minister Peter Bjornson's approval Tuesday to go ahead with consolidating two schools into one in Reston, Ashern and Fisher Branch.

But confusion and anger are rampant among school divisions still reeling from Bjornson's out-of-nowhere moratorium Monday on school closings.

"Is this the beginning of the end for school boards?" asked Louis Riel board chairman Hugh Coburn, who had to cancel Tuesday evening's expected debate over the threatened closure of four division schools.

"This is a political decision," Coburn said. "We make educational decisions that are best for the kids. They make decisions that are good for them, because they've got a bunch of MLAs and cabinet ministers in the area."

The superintendents of four city divisions that planned to close as many as nine schools on June 30, 2009, will meet May 9 with deputy education minister Gerald Farthing, said Louis Riel superintendent Terry Borys.

In Eriksdale, Lakeshore School Division superintendent Phyllis Hildebrandt spent a tense 24 hours fielding countless calls from parents.

Lakeshore voted last year to close early years schools in Ashern and Fisher Branch, and consolidate them with the local high schools into single kindergarten to Grade 12 buildings.

Bjornson said Monday that any closure vote prior to Jan. 1, 2008, would be allowed to proceed. But he also said that only the three-student Pine Dock School would be allowed to close, and that all other schools in operation this year would remain open indefinitely.

"We've been told our consolidation will go ahead," Hildebrandt said. "It has caused mass confusion among the public. I'll breathe easier when I get it in writing."

An aide to Bjornson confirmed that the consolidations can go ahead.

From Virden, Fort La Bosse school board chairman Garry Draper said the province assured his division Tuesday that it can keep going ahead with closing Reston Elementary School and consolidating it into Reston Collegiate. Construction work on the addition to convert the collegiate to a K-12 is already under way, Draper said.

In Winnipeg, "We're all quite jubilant," said Randy Aitken, a parent at Chapman School in Pembina Trails School Division. Chapman was threatened with closing after the Charleswood School dropped below 86 students.

Borys said he would have recommended to the Louis Riel board Tuesday that French immersion students at Ecole Henri-Bergeron move into nearby Ecole Provencher.

Meanwhile, students at Archwood and Marion schools would have moved into the Henri-Bergeron building.

Borys would have recommended that Archwood become a "mega-day care" for parents driving by on their way to jobs downtown. Marion would have become an access centre, housing community services.

Manitoba Association of School Trustees president Yolane Dupuis said Bjornson is steadily eroding trustees' autonomy and authority.

Power grab?

School trustees believe the Doer government is steadily eroding their local autonomy and authority. In recent years, the government has:

Imposed widespread amalgamation of school divisions.

Capped how much divisions are allowed to spend on administration.

Capped how much money divisions are allowed to have in reserve funds or surplus.

Offered divisions a tax incentive grant in return for freezing taxes and capping spending -- while also requiring divisions to hire more physical education teachers this coming fall.

Ended the local right to decide when to close schools.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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