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Our very own national scandal

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Winnipeg School Division trustee Mike Babinsky has been on the phone three times already today — but who’s counting? — about the Great Sisler/Trudeau Scandal of 2013.

No, I won’t add ‘-gate’ to any of those above words, I dare not trivialize this scandal in any way.

Babinsky believes that someone within the division is lying about who told what to whom, and believes that it was not Sisler High School principal George Heshka’s idea to tell the media to leave the school when federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his retinue came by the school last Thursday.

Mike, you might want to take that call, it’ll be Woodward and Bernstein.

A Sisler teacher asked Trudeau about nine months ago if he would come sometime to speak to three classrooms of senior high social studies students. That teacher has invited other politicians, the division says, and other politicians have come into the school at the invitation of the school on other occasions, without the media’s being invited to cover it.

Wednesday afternoon, Trudeau’s people sent out news releases inviting the media to come into Sisler for, it appears, a photo op.

Let’s be clear — Trudeau’s people can’t do that.

The Public Schools Act defines anyone who isn’t a student or an employee of a particular school as a stranger, and strangers can only enter the property with the knowledge and consent of the school, which, practically, means the principal. When my kids were in school, I didn’t want anyone in that school who was unknown to the staff and there without consent; I’ve never believed I have some constitutional right to barge into a school and have unfettered access to children. Yes, I must acknowledge that there is not universal acceptance of that within the profession, but I digress...

When a school wants to hold a media event, it often goes up the chain to the chief superintendent, and if she doesn’t sign off on it, the event isn’t open. When a school invites in the media, the school requires that parents provide written consent for their kids to be photographed, filmed, and possibly interviewed.

That’s why it takes a few days to set it up when we ask for access to a school. That’s why when I go to a school that’s expecting me, I go straight to the office and identify myself. And it’s why politicians, such as Premier Greg Selinger or Education Minister Nancy Allan wanting to announce something, start setting up the approvals well in advance.

It happens more often than you’d think that a teacher will call up with a positive story about her or his class, and want me to come. And I tell this educated, empowered, intelligent adult that that’s not a good career move. Pretend you haven’t called, I say, then go to your principal, who’ll contact the communications director, who’ll talk to the area superintendent, who’ll take it to the chief superintendent, and maybe it’ll come back down the line with an OK.

And it happens quite regularly that an organization, business, company, agency, whoever, will have an event scheduled in a school, and will invite the media to come and cover it. And I invariably email back and point out that third parties cannot invite me into a school, and I copy it to the communications director to ask if the division is aware and has signed off on media access.

What I don’t say is that in 98 per cent of these cases, it would have to be the slowest news day in history to — but I digress.

I’m not naive. I know that Trudeau evokes interest. Politicians go into schools all the time at the invitation of the school, and we don’t demand access to cover it, but this is the guy who’s the flavour of the month. Had I not been booked to cover the heritage fair at U of W, I would have probably walked over to Sisler — though I also would have checked ahead of time with the division about what was going on, since I had never received a news release from WSD.

It’s not clear how many hours before his visit that various trustees and senior officials in WSD each became aware that Trudeau would be in the school Thursday morning. Babinsky says that the division should have known that if you have Mick Jagger in the school, people will want to come, and that WSD looks stupid by its handling of the situation — never one to leave a pot unstirred, our Mike.

Babinsky also thinks this is all an NDP conspiracy to deny Trudeau media coverage — um, Mike, I think the N-Dippers conspire more skillfully than that, and would have known how this would play out.

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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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