Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

School trustees bemoan loss of autonomy, power

Still have the most authority in Canada, says professor

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School trustees believe the NDP government has slowly and inexorably stripped them of authority and autonomy -- yet they're the most powerful school trustees in Canada.

"The notion that school boards are freewheeling autonomous bodies that can do whatever they want" is not a notion shared by school trustees, said Carolyn Duhamel, executive director of the Manitoba School Boards Association.

Wherever trustees gather, you'll hear grumbling about the loss of autonomy. Their annual convention has for years drawn dire warnings that the last straw to losing everything would be any decision to give up local bargaining.

"We see a pattern across the country," Duhamel said. "There's been more and more centralized decision-making in the provincial ministries of education."

Since the NDP took office in 1999, imposed amalgamation shrank the number of school boards to 37 from 55. The province came out of nowhere in the spring of 2008 with a moratorium on closing schools.

Money that school divisions can spend on administration and keep in contingency reserve funds is now capped, there's a provincewide nutrition plan, curricula come from the province, and new mandatory system-wide programs appear regularly, from compulsory grades 11 and 12 phys-ed credits to smaller class sizes.

'Where parents are in disagreement, they've taken the issue to the minister's office'

-- Carolyn Duhamel, executive director of the Manitoba School Boards Association

That's all true, said University of Manitoba education Prof. Jon Young, head of the department of education administration, foundation, and psychology, but Manitoba's school trustees still have powers that are the envy of every other school board member in Canada.

"Funding is hugely important, the ability to raise local taxes," and only in Manitoba do trustees still have the power to raise as much money as they want or need through education property taxes, Young pointed out.

In every other jurisdiction, the government hands school boards a cheque, and that's the end of the discussion.

Education Minister James Allum was not available for an interview.

Young led a research team that compared school boards in Manitoba and Ontario between 1991 and 2011.

They interviewed school trustees and senior administrators, said Young: "They all had different answers. The trustees said, 'We don't have any authority.' The deputy ministers said, 'Trustees have all the authority they want, if they choose to exercise it.'

"In 1991 you had a pretty decent system in Manitoba with broad school board authority over a wide range of education," which is still there now, Young said, though he acknowledged about central oversight, "You see that line moving."

Nevertheless, Young said, Manitoba school boards still bargain individually with teachers and other employees, although in recent years there has been a remarkable series of contracts settled at identical financial terms.

"You've got the amalgamation piece," Young said, but the NDP stopped short of what other provinces have done, and Winnipeg remains the only large city not served by one giant board.

Local boards decide on major policy areas such as full-day kindergarten or immersion and heritage languages, "Either by raising their own funds or moving funds around," said Young.

Trustees decide what grades and programs that each school will offer, and where catchment areas will be set, Young said.

Maybe, said Duhamel, but Louis Riel School Division ran afoul of the province over programming at âcole Provencher, and the minister intervened in industrial arts decisions in Turtle River S.D.

"Where parents are in disagreement, they've taken the issue to the minister's office," she said.

Trustees cope without the province's districts having equalized commercial-assessment bases, Young said.

Fewer than 40 per cent of divisions have the majority of commercial assessment, an enormous factor in both taxation and the ability of school boards to finance equitable public education.

"The lack of individuals interested in running for school board, I haven't quite figured that out," Young said. "It used to be that pillars of the community would consider doing it."

Now, those people turn to non-profits and volunteer for agencies such as the United Way: "There are a lot safer places to do community service than school boards. If you run for school board, you're going to piss people off."

Young said it's ridiculous to say trustees should be eliminated to save money.

"I'm concerned there isn't more competition for positions, but I'm not convinced that's evidence they're irrelevant."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2014 A7

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