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What in the world is going on in McCreary?

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I’ve never understood why Turtle River School Division wasn’t amalgamated in 2002 when the NDP imposed mergers and carving-ups of school divisions across Manitoba.

Back then, the education minister of the day, Drew Caldwell, said there were several general criteria for amalgamation, which applied to a lot of rural divisions: enrolment under 2,000 students, a low assessment base, affluent neighbouring divisions.

And the government kept its hands off Turtle River as amalgamation swept across Manitoba.

Conspiracy theorists can’t even find a political motive — the NDP won the area riding once, decades ago, and haven’t come close since.

So now we have Turtle River as Manitoba’s smallest school division, 740 students, which is fewer kids than you’ll find in most city high schools. It’s the only division with fewer than 1,000 students and it’s in steady decline, with seven small schools in places such as McCreary, Alonsa and Glenella.

Education Minister Nancy Allan is dispatching deputy minister Gerald Farthing to find out what in the world is going on in Turtle River.

Now, Farthing travels a lot. He’s a very bright, amiable fellow, who regularly meets with educators and students and parents all over the province. This is different, this is getting to the bottom of problems.

Parents have come to Allan complaining that the five-trustee board is secretive, makes all its decisions behind closed doors, didn’t consult on the budget passed earlier this month, and ignored hundreds of names on a petition and dozens of pickets outside the board budget meeting demanding reinstatement of grades 7 and 8 shops and home ec.

That’s a big deal for Allan. Turtle River chopped shops and home ec for junior high a year ago, and ignored widespread public demand this year to bring them back. Allan increased funding to Turtle River by 3.3 per cent, despite declining enrolment, and she thinks shops and home ec are pretty important to some kids.

The parents are talking about finding candidates for the school board election in October 2014 — always ominous for incumbents in rural school board seats where acclamations and low voter turnout abound — and even more ominously, they’re talking about taking another look at amalgamation.

We don’t know what the school board thinks about any of this, because the board chair and superintendent did not respond to interview requests.

That’s nothing new.

Each of the last two years, as soon as Allan has announced her operating grants, I’ve sent out a series of five or six emails through March 15, asking the school divisions how much funding they got from the province, their draft and final increase if any, significant cuts or additions to spending, and, finally, their mill rate. This year and last, Turtle River has not responded, not even once.

It’s not as though Turtle River gets no attention, though not a lot of it has been positive. There was a very divisive bus and support workers strike, in which people who pretty much know everybody in town chose sides. There were the couple, he a school trustee and she a school bus driver, who stepped down after being charged with running a grow-op. And there was the arbitration, after the trustees somehow thought they could impose a nine-hour workday on teachers, along with compulsory evening and weekend work and mandatory extracurricular supervision, working conditions unknown anywhere else in Manitoba’s public school system.

So, Nancy, we await word — what in the world is going on in McCreary and Glenella and Alonsa and Ste. Rose and Laurier?

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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