The province's tiniest school division is in turmoil -- parents are alleging Turtle River trustees make all their key decisions behind closed doors, have ignored widespread community pleas to restore cancelled shops programs and refused to consult taxpayers on the budget.
And, ominously, the parents are saying it's time to take another look at amalgamation and find candidates for next year's election.
Education Minister Nancy Allan said Friday she's dispatching deputy minister Gerald Farthing to McCreary soon to find out what's going on. He'll meet separately with the trustees and superintendent and with parents from all seven schools.
"What is important here is we get some of these concerns resolved," said Allan, acknowledging she doesn't take such action very often.
Allan said she's especially troubled Turtle River dropped grades 7 and 8 shops and home economics last year for budget reasons, then failed to reinstate them in the budget passed earlier this month, despite a 3.3 per cent increase in provincial funding.
"For some students, we know that's really important programming for them," Allan said. "Shops programming for kids this age is sometimes exactly what they need."
Nancy Buchanan, a parent at McCreary School, said dissatisfaction with the veteran five-trustee board first seriously flared a year ago when trustees chopped grades 7 and 8 shops and home economics as an apparent budget-cutting move.
The board ignored community pleas to restore the programs in this year's budget and passed it March 12 "despite over 70 parents, students and taxpayers picketing outside the division office as they passed the budget," said Buchanan.
Buchanan said 350 people signed a petition demanding Turtle River reinstate shops, but the board ignored it.
"The TRSD is very secretive and will not provide anyone with budget details. Instead, they say that if anyone has questions, they can phone the treasurer and she will look up the information and then get back to you," Buchanan said.
"The trustees seem to not have to answer to anyone and are spending taxpayer dollars without any input from anyone."
Neither school board chairman Fabian Gingras nor superintendent Bev Szymesko responded to interview requests.
"They're pretty tight-lipped here; it's frustrating," said McCreary parent-council chairman Craig Terrick.
"Everything's in camera."
Terrick said parents became much more active after the shops and home ec programs for junior high disappeared throughout the division. "We said, 'Let's get to the bottom of stuff.' It turns out we have no power. We're not being represented; there's no communication."
The western Manitoba division of only 740 students has seven small schools: kindergarten to Grade 12 in McCreary, Alonsa, Ste. Rose du Lac, and Glenella; K-8 in Laurier; and two in Hutterite colonies.
Terrick said parents are looking for people to contest the October 2014 school board election and they're ready to talk about amalgamation with one or more neighbouring divisions.
If anyone brings up amalgamation while Farthing is in Turtle River, he will listen, Allan said.
"Maybe there's opportunities for partnerships with other school divisions," she said.
The NDP has never adequately explained why Turtle River was not part of the amalgamations imposed across the province in 2002. The government's criteria for rural amalgamation included having fewer than 2,000 students, a low assessment base and affluent neighbouring divisions.
Located between Lake Winnipeg and Riding Mountain National Park, Turtle River borders Mountain View, Beautiful Plains and Pine Creek school divisions.
Tiny, but troubled
AT 740 students -- fewer than most city high schools -- Turtle River School Division is Manitoba's only division of fewer than 1,000 students. The division east of Riding Mountain has dropped steadily from 903 students in the late SSRq90s.
Tiny though it may be, Turtle River has received more media attention than most smaller rural divisions.
The division suffered a prolonged bus and support-staff strike several years ago that divided communities, a trustee resigned after he and his school-bus- driver wife were charged with running a grow-op and the division lost an arbitration in which it tried to impose a nine-hour workday and compulsory evening, weekend and extracurricular work on teachers.
Through it all, Turtle River has been reluctant to talk to the media.
This year and last, the board chairman and superintendent did not respond to any of a series of Winnipeg Free Press requests for budget information.