Telling Tales out of School
with Nick Martin
06/18/2013 11:57 AM
Mike Babinsky would try the patience of a saint. Dale Carnegie would probably tell Babinsky not even to bother buying the book. Will Rogers would have shaken his head and walked away.
There was Babinsky Monday night, 18 years and counting over delighting in being a lone-wolf maverick, suddenly trying to be Captain Co-operation.
Work with me here, colleagues, he told the Winnipeg School Division board, to end secrecy and open up public business to the public.
Why couldn’t it have been any of the other eight trustees, the ones who haven’t spent their time on the school board carefully honing a reputation of not getting along with anyone and of being the defiant and proud outsider?
Babinsky wears it as a badge of honour that he’s never been elected to chair one of the major board committees.
Just why none of those other eight trustees is the public champion of open government, we’ll leave for another day. Monday night it was Babinsky championing the cause, and so worthy a goal couldn’t have been in worse hands.
Typical Babinsky, he was asking for co-operation Monday night while throwing it in his colleagues’ faces yet again. And again.
One of the issues he was pushing Monday evening was the catered meals trustees eat when they come straight from work to a (closed) committee meeting followed by a (partially open) board meeting. Babinsky says that the food has never passed his lips, he wants to put an end to the practice, and there he was Monday evening, asking for co-operation while gloatingly and smugly displaying a plate of sandwiches in bread, buns, and wraps. Alas, the only camera in the room belonged to the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Let’s hope that those sandwiches, having sat out for 90 minutes or so, weren’t among the leftovers which Babinsky later delivered to the Sally Ann shelter. But I digress.
The issue of catered meals has been bounced to the board’s finance committee, which, like all committees, meets behind closed doors.
Did I mention that the board has censured Babinsky several times over the years? The first time, to the best of my recollection, was when he identified a Grade 3 girl who had been sexually assaulted by a man who’d been lurking inside her school after sneaking in during recess. Babinsky held a news conference with the girls’ parents, and named them, thereby identifying the girl.
The most recent was when he gave me the short list of candidates to be the new chief superintendent; Babinsky was unhappy with the absence of a particular candidate. His colleagues, not to mention the people on the short list, weren’t impressed.
Anyway, back to Monday night.
Babinsky wanted the board to suspend the rules and have three readings of a bylaw that would overturn a previous bizarre decision on recorded votes that would require a majority to vote in favour of having individual yeas and nays recorded for the historical record. And recorded for personal accountability come election time. Babinsky wanted a recorded vote to be taken automatically if anyone requested it, which had been standard practice until recently, and is standard practice everywhere else democracy reigns.
Suspension of the rules to overturn previous decisions within a certain time period requires a unanimous vote — otherwise, someone who lost a vote would be resurrecting an issue every meeting. To everyone’s enormous surprise, Babinsky failed to get unanimity.
So how had Babinsky been warming up to his colleagues Monday evening leading up to that particular vote? By asking for recorded votes on all kinds of stuff, then pulling out his watch and timing and reporting how long — or, as he argued, how little time — it takes to conduct a recorded vote. He was kind of belligerent about it, too.
Subsequently, Babinsky raised another motion. He alleged that trustee Kristine Barr was incorrect and misleading in her statements to FP reporter Randy Turner about how many recorded votes are taken and how much time they eat up. Babinsky demanded a retraction or correction from WSD. No shock — he lost.
Babinsky’s ticking everyone off aside, this is a serious issue. It takes only a few seconds to ask each trustee to say yes or no, to be forever entrenched in history, and to be accountable for personal decisions.
On and on it went.
For more than a decade WSD has been paying its senior managers the same percentage salary increase as teachers bargain, and nary a peep out of Babinsky. Suddenly, he sees the potential for conflict of interest, since a few senior managers are involved in bargaining, though trustees eventually vote on tentative agreements. He wants the two processes separated, and, indeed, the finance committee is looking at it, at what the alternatives might be, and getting legal advice on just what kind of conflict, if any, would be involved in the current system.
Trustees were falling over each other to defend the integrity of staff — trustee Mark Wasyliw, a lawyer, obviously spotted the minefield through which Babinsky was stomping.
Babinsky also raised the issue of agendas, such as they are. How come trustees get their agendas Thursday for Monday meetings, yet the public can’t see them until Monday morning on-line, he asked.
Good question, and one I’ve been raising for years. Calling what is posted on-line Monday mornings an agenda is laughable, it’s pretty much just a list of which committees will be reporting, along with the wording of motions, with not a hint of the content of those committee reports.
Back in the 1990s, the board used to put out a real package, with supporting reports and details from each committee, along with public correspondence about written requests on policy issues. The public and media could subscribe, and could pick up the packages Friday mornings. The trustees got upset over stories appearing in the FP over the weekend and over the public getting interested in upcoming business, and put a stop to the practice.
Correspondence disappeared from both the agendas and official minutes about the same time. There were two publicly-prominent fathers who opposed the division’s anti-homophobia education plans so vehemently that they threatened to put their children in private schools if the division didn’t drop the whole notion of anti-homophobia. Their letters were printed on the agenda, and when I called the dads to ask some questions, they totally freaked at discovering that what they’d written was public knowledge. And shortly thereafter, the division stopped printing correspondence.
Look, the levels of secrecy within Winnipeg School Division are deplorable. I stopped going to board meetings several years ago because there was no point of sitting through 15 or 20 minutes of rubber-stamping routine business and housekeeping that weren’t worth space in the paper.
The board conducts all its committee meetings behind closed doors. The important matters before the full board go in camera.
WSD has a $365 million budget and educates one out of every six public school students in Manitoba. There is one public forum on the budget, held at the end of February, two weeks before the deadline, and after months of closed-door discussions.
The finance committee — which, I will again point out, does not meet in public — is looking into making budget meetings more accessible, but it started thr process by getting briefed about the legal justifications for doing personnel and other budget aspects secretly. Yes, I understand why trustees decide about an a individual employee behind closed doors; I don’t understand why they can justify deciding in secret how many thousands of teachers will be on the payroll.
There are other ongoing issues being dealt with behind closed doors, issues in which the public has interest. There’s the development of a policy on giving politicians access to students, the kerfuffle that hit the fan when Justin Trudeau’s people invited the media into Sisler High School to cover his appearance there, without running it by the single most powerful authority figure in the public school system, Sisler principal George Heshka.
And there’s the ad hoc committee established to take another run at the idea first raised in 2001 by community activists who want the current ward system — three wards of three trustees each, each bigger than most federal ridings and pretty near all provincial ridings in the city — replaced by nine wards of one trustee apiece. Trustee Suzanne Hrynyk says the ad hoc committee will meet in the fall, but isn’t yet sure if it will hold public hearings.
It’s just too bad that it has to be Babinsky who’s the one championing the openness cause — the rest of the board can’t see beyond the personality to the principles.
Maybe one of the newer and promising trustees who play well with others will step up — like, say, for instance, Mark Wasyliw or Darlyne Bautista. No pressure, eh, just saying...
06/17/2013 3:17 PM
I got yet another one of those difficult bullying calls last week.
The mother who called didn’t give me her name, and only reluctantly named the schools involved. She was sure without her family’s talking it over further that she wanted to go ahead and see it in the paper.
I always make sure the family is together on these stories before I commit time — learned that lesson the hard way many times over.
But she was quite taken aback when I told her that we needed substantiation before we considered running a story. So many people seem surprised that we won’t just run a story based on their word and what they say happened. Sometimes they conclude, as this mother did, that we’re the voice of the overdog and that we don’t care that their child was bullied.
But the mainstream media maggots can’t simply do potentially great damage to the careers and reputations of educators, and to the reputations of respected schools, based solely on the word of one individual.
It didn’t help that the mother waited 3.5 years to come forward. She wants the story told before her son graduates from elementary school this month.
The gist of the mother’s story is that sometime in 2010, her young son was hit in the face by another elementary school student, who was wearing a snowmobile glove at the time. When she didn’t like the way the school handled the incident, she called the police, who went to the house of the other young boy’s parents.
The mother has an older son who, back then, was in the same elementary school. He subsequently applied to enrol in a certain private school, and was turned down; the mother says someone told her that the elementary school had red-flagged her family as troublemakers.
To even consider doing a story such as this, we need something to substantiate it. The mother has nothing in writing that would show her family was indeed red-flagged, or that her calling in the police played any role in her older son’s not getting into a particular school.
She says someone saw a note passed between schools, but she won’t tell me who that was, so I can see if that person will corroborate the story. She has no other parents or teachers or anyone whom she can name who could say that any of this is true.
Of course, I could call the two schools and ask if the circumstances outlined by an unnamed person about her unnamed son ring any bells, and ask if the schools could confirm it all happened just as she said — in my experience, that’s unlikely.
This isn’t the sort of thing one can FIPPA to find a paper trail.
And the mother, of course, believes that I don’t care about bullying or the hurt her children suffered.
05/30/2013 8:35 PM
Taking my first vacation time of 2013 — you’ll have to yell anonymously online at someone else on our staff until June 10.
Meanwhile, sharp-eyed readers may have noticed the strange timing around our reporting on the key resolutions at the Manitoba Teachers’ Society annual general meeting.
It wasn’t just because I was on a 7 a.m. breaking news shift that I wasn’t at the AGM for three long days with my pencil and scribbler.
As I told union prez Paul Olson — no, no, don’t reach for the comment button yet, if you haven’t figured out by now that I don’t consider "union" a pejorative... sigh — I’ve been complaining like since totally forever on the way the teachers draw up their agendas.
Most of the three days consists of internal union business, with education policy that would pique the interest of general readers a decided rarity. Not quite as rare as Tories being invited as guest speakers, but plenty rare.
I know that resolutions on the mileage rates paid to members of the subcommittee to the subcommittee to the ad hoc committee who have to drive into Thompson for meetings, or the procedure by which the 18th assistant regional vice-president from the bunch of schools yay close to the Saskatchewan border gets elected, would drive Mike Duffy and Rob Ford off the front pages.
Alas, until MTS decides it wants media attention and packages its education stuff at a particular scheduled time, it won’t get media there. None of us, and here I take the dangerous step of speaking for all members of MSMM — mainstream media maggots — just can’t camp out for three days in the hopes that we’ll eventually get a story.
So, the night reporter working Friday night picked up the resolution on spending $1.5 million in union dues for a classroom in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and I didn’t do the interview with Olson on the resolution demanding the province require all education curricula to reflect sexual orientation and same-sex family and gender identity issues and themes until later Sunday, when I was working a night shift as a general assignment reporter. And I did it then because MTS didn’t get to that key resolution until Saturday morning, when our reporter and photographer were engaged with breaking news.
Harumph. You teachers do understand that it’s all about me, don’t you?
Moving along, all you anonymous commenters excoriating the education minister and MTS prez, could you at least note that it’s Nancy Allan, not Allen, and Paul Olson, not Olsen?
I got a call the other day from this guy who didn’t offer his name. He wanted to alert me to a scandal at a large educational institution whose name sharp-eyed readers would recognize. Seems this couple, one of whom is an academic, is stalking students. OK, I’m interested.
A few minor glitches. While he knew the name of the non-academic partner of the alleged stalking pair, he didn’t know the name of the academic allegedly involved. My informant wasn’t involved himself, and he didn’t know the names of any students allegedly being stalked, nor did he know what this alleged stalking entailed. He’d heard about it, though, but didn’t want to name his sources or have these sources call me. I’m the reporter, he pointed out — surely this is more than enough for a major investigative story to be broken.
No, I didn’t tell him that my name isn’t Shirley.
I did call the unnamed institution, and ask if this rang any bells around disciplinary proceedings, which is really a reach.
That reminds me of two calls a few months ago from two people working together to reveal a scandal. Both calls sounded long distance. The gist of it was about — again — an academic, this time someone whose credentials they alleged are not legitimate. One of the individuals’ theses, they said, may not have been his own work. All they would tell me is that the degree was obtained in another country, and the thesis was not in English. They wanted me to publish a story, but had yet to even hint at the person’s name or field. I told them they’d need to provide substantiation, and a lot of it.
They were taken aback.
Um, because you want potentially to end someone’s career? And such things need incredibly serious substantiation?
They said they’d have to talk it over, and I’ve never heard from them again.
I try to be co-operative when people ask me for help, but, as one student found out a few years ago, I won’t write responses of at least 3,000 words. But I digress. I’d written about the veterans’ memorial at Daniel Mcintyre Collegiate, and the reader emailed to ask me to find out who Daniel McIntyre was — I knew — and said that back in the 60s there’d been a statue in the main hallway, is it still there, and oh yes, what was that a statue of, since the reader can’t remember.
I thought I was being polite, she probably thought I was rude; I said I would get the answers when I had time, if she could tell me a reason she herself couldn’t Google Daniel McIntyre and phone the school to ask about the statue.
Haven’t heard back yet.
Is it just me, or did the last episode of Game of Thrones have more characters than usual who didn’t make an appearance or have their situations updated?
Back to education.
I’ve been up to my eyeballs for the past few weeks working on annual convocation coverage of U of M, U of W, and RRC. And inevitably, when the U of M convocation coverage ran Wednesday, the first call I got was from a parent, wanting to know why we didn’t publish the names of every single graduate.
Thousands of names.
Back June 10. Do try to cope.
05/23/2013 1:41 PM
The Selinger government has made a very clear and conscious decision to put money back into the pockets of homeowners and students rather than directly into our education institutions.
There are very few parallels between the funding of the public school system and the funding of the postsecondary system. Tuition plays roughly the role of property taxes as the second-greatest source of funding after provincial operating grants, albeit in a lower proportion, but that’s about it.
Though, one must say, both funding systems are complex, convoluted, and confusing.
The provincial funding for universities and colleges pays no attention to per-student funding, which is at the heart of funding the kindergarten to Grade 12 system.
U of M president David Barnard raised numerous questions in our interview Wednesday over tuition here being so far below the national average, third-lowest in the country, and why the province concentrates on reducing students’ costs, to the detriment of the institutions.
This is a chaotic time for universities across Canada, and let’s be clear, even though the province reneged on its three-year commitment to increase operating grants five per cent a year, it still increased grants by 2.5 per cent.
I read Academica Top Ten every day, the postsecondary news roundup out of LondonOnt. Governments are playing hardball with universities, and the impact in particular on Alberta universities of that province’s deep funding reductions is pretty near cataclysmic for job and program cuts. Just today, Academica Top Ten reported that the tiny University of Prince Edward Island has to lay off 35 people and reduce its budget nine per cent because of provincial funding reductions. U of M’s cuts amounted to about 0.8 per cent.
But back to our main topic, and my never-ending quest to force even the eyes of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to glaze over.
The K-12 system has an annual operating budget of $2.026 billion. But — and you knew there were to be many ‘buts’ — tens of millions of dollars never go into a classroom.
Start with the education property tax credit, which, before 2006, was simply a property tax credit paid out of general revenues that took a few hundred dollars off the bottom of your property tax bill. Go to page 42 of the FRAME (Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education) gripping page-turner of a read, and you’ll see that the education property tax credit is $192.6 million.
But, not a penny of that money goes into a classroom. Though the government has labelled it education funding, all that money comes off the bottom of your property tax bill.
FRAME also lists $35.6 million as the farmland tax rebate and $1.5 million as pensioners’ tax assistance. And someday soon we’ll be adding the elimination of education property taxes for seniors.
Those last three represent money that does go into the public school system, but the province has decided that it will dig into general revenues for $37.1 million to put the cash back into people’s pockets. That’s reimbursing certain taxpayers, instead of taking that $37.1 million the government can apparently spare from general revenues and increasing the revenue available to run the public school system. Sure, taxpayers of various kinds would be left holding the bag, but the money would theoretically improve the quality of education.
OK, now let’s switch to the postsecondary system and specifically to universities. Is anyone still awake out there? No? Not even Colin Craig?
I don’t expect that the Tory education and advanced education critics are still with us, because their alternative policies are "NDP bad, NDP really bad", with no constructive and/or creative solutions offered that we’ve heard so far.
But I digress.
The provincial government will provide $480 million as university operating grants in 2013-2014, of which $325 million goes to U of M. Hardly chump change.
Statistics Canada and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada list extensive data which show that the average Manitoba undergraduate student with a maximum course load pays just about $2,000 less per year in tuition fees than does the average Canadian university student.
Tuition, as everyone still with us surely knows, is based on the courses taken, not on how many bodies are on a campus.
So let’s be conservative here — pause while right wing ideologues among regular readers make snide remarks — and say that there are 30,000 fulltime equivalent students with maximum course loads at U of M, U of W, and BrandonU. That would be another $60 million a year in revenue available to run the universities.
Now keep in mind that the Selinger government has a very generous graduate retention tax rebate paid to grads who stay in Manitoba after university, that’s capped with percentages and dollars but is still pretty generous in further reducing the impact of tuition fees that are also very low. Last year, the province ponied up $25.5 million.
By now, they’re having conniptions over at the Canadian Federation of Students, which wants free tuition and is undoubtedly horror-stricken at where I’m going. But I’ll carry on.
Further keep in mind that the province also allows Manitoba students currently in university — including those from here who go to university outside the province — to claim an advance on that rebate each year while they’re still in school. It’s capped, of course, but the provincial budget says that will pay out at least $4 million this coming tax year.
Those dollars are piling up, eh, and nary a penny of it going into the operation of the schools.
But wait, there’s more.
Remember a few years ago when the province had frozen tuition at 1999 levels, and those dastardly universities had tried to use a back door to raise some serious coin by increasing ancillary fees? Those are fees levied on students for bus passes, using the gym, for libraries, to run the bookstore, to support student radio, parking, all sorts of things. The province kiboshed additional ancillary fees and told the universities to knock it off.
And then there’ve been the attempts by professional schools at U of M and a couple at U of W to get exempted from tuition controls, and be allowed to raise their fees to somewhere near the national averages. The province has allowed a couple, but only one or two.
Bottom line, there’s a lot of money out there that could be going into operating the universities.
The elephant in the room is the cost to students, accessibility, and the financial ability of low-income students to attend university.
I know I’m taxing your memories — why not, everything else in Manitoba is taxed, bad-da-boom — but remember back when the province not only froze tuition at 1999 levels, but further reduced students’ tuition fees by 10 per cent? That’s been phased out as the province allowed tuition rates to rise at the level of the CPI. Back then, I raised the issue of taking that money, which cost the province about $15 million a year, and gearing it to income. That wouldn’t be equitable, retorted the NDP, so all students saw their tuiton cut by about $300 a year, regardless they were single mothers from the North End, or the daughter of senior professionals living on Wellington Crescent.
Back then, I reckoned that the 10 per cent reduction money would provide full tuition for the better part of 4,500 to 5,000 students a year, if it was geared to income.
I’m not saying that tuitions should skyrocket, or that all the money being dangled as an incentive to stay here after graduation should go to the universities. Any changes to tuition and money going to the schools should include a condition that a certain amount goes towards scholarships and bursaries, an idea that’s hardly original with me. As I recall, the professional schools made their pitch with a condition that part of the increase would go to student financial aid for those students who would qualify academically but not have the money to enrol.
But just as we need to recognize that the quality of education in the K-12 system is based on the assessed value of properties within defined geographical boundaries, we need to recognize that the quality of education in our universities varies on how government balances institutional health and students’ costs.
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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