BRANDON -- If James Allum wishes to be taken seriously as minister of education and advanced learning, he would be wise to begin acting as if he takes his portfolio seriously.
On an almost daily basis, he is asked questions by Opposition MLAs about the many problems facing Manitoba's education system and his response is almost always the same -- the Filmon Tories fired 700 teachers and the Pallister Tories voted against Bill 18 last year.
Last week, Allum took his fear-mongering on the road, and to a new level, in a speech delivered to the Manitoba Teachers' Society annual convention. He warned that the Progressive Conservatives have "a vision that wants to cut the heart out of the classroom," and "jobs will be on the line" if they win the next election.
He claimed a Tory government would mean "larger class sizes, fewer teachers, no new schools, no new gyms."
Having repeated those lines so often over the past several months, it appears Allum is starting to believe his own rhetoric. The problem for him is his talking points don't square with the facts.
Numerous reports have shown Gary Filmon's government did not fire any teachers in the 1990s, let alone 700 of them. In fact, the number of teachers actually increased by 30 when now-Opposition Leader Brian Pallister was a member of Filmon's cabinet.
Allum claims the Tories would cut teaching positions, but the Brandon School Division slashed 11 teachers in this year's budget and may be forced to make additional cuts in the future due to the refusal of Allum's government to provide funding at a level that keeps pace with the rising cost of educating Manitoba's children.
Other school divisions, facing shortfalls even more dire than Brandon's, may be forced to follow the BSD's example when they set their budgets next spring. That could result in hundreds of unemployed teachers just before the next provincial election.
Allum's claim that a Pallister government would not build new schools and gyms is especially hypocritical, given that his own government lags far behind school divisions' requests for new facilities. Bridging the gap with portable classrooms is a Band-Aid solution that wastes money.
Instead of scaring Manitobans with ominous predictions of what the next government could do to the education system, Allum's time would be better spent telling us how his own government plans to fix problems that have materialized while it has been in power.
For example, the OECD reported last year that Manitoba students ranked among the lowest in Canada in math, reading and science. Since 2006, the province has fallen from the middle of the pack to the bottom.
When the OECD report was released, Allum said, "I was quite disappointed to see the results," and "these results give us a mandate to look for alternatives." A year later, we are still waiting for him to tell us what those alternatives are.
Though the quality of education in Manitoba is not keeping pace with other provinces, the cost has increased dramatically. As the Selinger government's share of funding for school divisions continues to shrink, property owners are being forced to shoulder a growing burden. If Allum has a plan to reverse this trend, Manitobans have yet to hear it.
For years, municipalities have been keeping property tax revenue that was earmarked for education. The cash grab is in the form of supplementary tax bills for properties that were not assessed or have undergone changes. It amounts to millions of dollars being diverted from classrooms annually. Why isn't Allum leading the fight to recover those desperately needed funds?
As a former University of Winnipeg lecturer, Allum must know that years of tuition freezes and underfunding have hampered the ability of Manitoba's universities to provide the quality of education we expect. As they struggle to hire and retain top-notch staff, and their infrastructure crumbles, Allum's lack of leadership on the issue is troubling.
With significant challenges confronting every level of the province's education system, Manitobans need an education minister who is prepared to provide constructive leadership. What we neither need nor want is a polarizing, partisan howler who evades responsibility, exploits our fears and sows discord and division.
If James Allum doesn't understand that, he isn't the right person for the job.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.
Twitter - @deverynross