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Border skirmishes: School divisions compete for students

Schools of choice was to level the education playing field; instead it has sparked raids along divisional boundaries

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Pembina Trails School Division wants to know -- why is it losing almost 200 students a year to Grant Park and Kelvin high schools?

Seine River S.D. is miffed neighbouring Red River Valley S.D. is sending free buses over divisional borders into La Salle to take kids to Sanford Collegiate, instead of their designated school at St. Norbert Collegiate.

Out in Brandon, school board chair Mark Sefton is wary lest neighbours send buses to grab kids from nearby rural schools in Shilo or Alexander.

The province says schools of choice is going splendidly, except for a few people who should make nice and try to get along.

Schools of choice was one of the final major education-policy decisions of the Filmon Tories in the late 1990s, allowing students to move across division boundaries without paying any fees, while taking their parents' education property taxes to the new division.

About three per cent of public school students move across divisional boundaries and at least five per cent move within their own division to a school outside their designated catchment.

The vast majority of students cross division boundaries for French immersion or vocational programming not offered in their own division. They have to arrange their own transportation, though some divisions will meet them with a bus at the border, or in a few controversial cases, pick up the kids at home for free.

Schools of choice is not automatic. The receiving school's principal must judge whether there is an empty desk available in a classroom to accommodate the transferring student -- space a catchment-area or divisional student does not need.

"We've had a net loss ever since amalgamation (in 2002)," Pembina Trails superintendent Lawrence Lussier said. "Most students going out from Pembina Trails were to Winnipeg School Division."

Pembina Trails is currently evaluating just why that's happening. Over the last five years, it's consistently seen at least 400 students go to Winnipeg S.D., while about 200 have moved the other way.

This past year, Lussier said, "We had 108 kids going to Grant Park. We had just under 80 going to Kelvin."

Some of that is proximity, he said. About 30 Pembina Trails resident students went to Kelvin for the International Baccalaureate program not available in PTSD. Another 37 go to Brock Corydon School for nursery to Grade 6 Hebrew bilingual.

WSD officials say they are not currently capping schools of choice, but principals can do so when they've judged a school is at or near capacity and needs to save desks for catchment-area students.

Pembina Trails, on the other hand, gains 126 students from Seine River and loses only 25 -- many of the 126 may leave St. Norbert or nearby rural towns in search of a much larger high school.

In Lorette, Seine River superintendent Mike Bjorgford loses a province-high 230 students a year. The deficit would be even worse if neighbouring Hanover S.D. offered French immersion in Steinbach and area; those kids go to Seine River schools.

"One of the biggest losses is Sanford Collegiate -- Red River Valley buses into La Salle," Bjorgford said. "Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80 or 90 kids are La Salle going into Sanford."

Bjorgford and his trustees are pretty unhappy about what they consider raiding from Red River Valley. "We've had some discussions in the past. Schools of choice with transportation makes it a lot more appealing," he said.

Red River Valley superintendent Pauline Lafond-Bouchard acknowledged Seine River has complained, but argued the boundary should be treated as a technicality.

"La Salle is kind of in our school division," closer to Sanford than to St. Norbert regardless where borders are drawn, Lafond-Bouchard said. "Sanford Collegiate is so close to La Salle. It's almost within. We're kind of surrounding."

Her division also runs buses into Winnipeg to pick up kids for the hockey academy at Starbuck School.

"They should talk," declared deputy education minister Gerald Farthing, who has not intervened. "We're aware of that, and we don't condone it, and we don't condemn it. We don't get involved -- it needs to be decided locally -- we expect divisions to be good neighbours."

In recent years, Brandon saw buses coming to its rural schools, and has threatened to retaliate by sending buses into Souris and other communities to bring kids to the city.

"In terms of propriety, it's certainly not appropriate," said Sefton.

In Beausejour-based Sunrise S.D., Reynolds Community School has shrunk to a provincewide low of nine pupils, while watching kids go down the highway to the much-newer Falcon Beach School in Frontier S.D.

Seven Oaks has some of Manitoba's highest numbers in and out, with an overall net gain of 189, and those high numbers are largely because some schools in the next division are closer to a student's home than their catchment schools -- a similar situation exists for WSD students in Elmwood bordering on River East Transcona S.D.

"Inkster School (WSD) is closer to Seven Oaks residents than any of our schools," O'Leary said. "Maples and Sisler are almost the same community."

St. James-Assiniboia S.D. once formed a marketing committee to aggressively recruit after the Charleswood Bridge opened, causing considerable irritation.

Not so now, said superintendent Ron Weston -- advertising is confined to schools attracting students from within the division.

SJASD sends more to Pembina Trails than it draws, enjoys a major gain from WSD, a gain of 40 from Carman-based Prairie Rose, and 35 from Interlake.

"Most come to Sturgeon Heights for vocational. We have 34 coming into Assiniboine School. It's French immersion, and right on the boundary of WSD," said Weston, who pointed out that St. James Collegiate is the closest high school for some WSD families.

Louis Riel S.D. trails only Seine River in net loss, said superintendent Duane Brothers, but finding out why and where requires more information than is readily available.

"Unfortunately, we do not have the ability to track where students attend when they complete a school-of-choice application or choose an independent school within our school division. To track this information would require a co-ordinated sharing of information between public and independent school systems," said Brothers.

Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson said every child should have a local well-resourced school that would negate the need to go elsewhere. As for divisions that raid others, Olson said their attitude is, "We know what the map says, we don't care -- that's reminiscent of every history lesson I ever had," said Olson.

"Busing is a bit of a hodge-podge," said Tory education critic Kelvin Goertzen (Steinbach), who urged divisions to use common sense and consider moving boundaries if that's the most sensible solution.

Some of the problems with schools of choice are affected by the NDP government having allowed some schools to grow beyond capacity while ignoring other schools, Goertzen said.

"It doesn't work well when you have schools so far over capacity. We have over 550 huts (portables) in the province. Schools of choice doesn't work in a lot of areas," because there's no room, he said.

"It was supposed to give a choice. It exists on paper, but it doesn't exist in reality. The government hasn't kept up with space provisions," Goertzen said.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 A6

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