Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • Here's the real election excitement

    09/15/2014 11:05 AM

    It’s looking as though I should get to know Dean Koshelanyk.

    With a day and a half or so to go before nominations close at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, he’s the only registered candidate for the Ward 9 school board seat in Winnipeg School Division.

    Across the city, we’re still looking at acclamations in 10 seats in four of the 25 wards — Seven Oaks Ward 3, Silver Heights-Booth in St. James-Assiniboia, and Ward 2 in Louis Riel.

    I’d been getting all giddy on Friday, seeing close to 75 candidates in the first three days, but it’s really slowed down. We’re still short of 90 candidates Monday morning, there are 35 incumbents running, and most of the other incumbents have made their plans known.

    Gone are the days when we had 11 or 12 candidates seeking the two or three seats in a ward. Four years ago, there were 96 candidates for the 52 city seats in six divisions, with six seats acclaimed.

    There’s going to be some major upheaval brought about by new people in considerable numbers.

    Only three incumbents are running in WSD. I was talking to Mike Babinsky, who’s revelled for 19 years at being an outsider — maverick is one of the terms commonly applied to him, probably the most polite one — and I suggested to him that if he gets re-elected, that if he can avoid ticking everyone off at the first meeting, the rookies might look at all that experience and make him board chair.

    Might.

    Meanwhile, a candidate in LRSD tells me that a retiring trustee has endorsed her. Sorry, I need him to tell me that, as Kristine Barr did when she told me she’s endorsed both Lisa Naylor and Kevin Settee. Keen observers may recall an MP who recently pumped out a news release saying that she had not, repeat not, employed a certain candidate, contrary to other disseminated information.

    Such incredible excitement there’s going to be for the next 29 and one-half hours.

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  • Is anything at Red River College any of our business?

    09/8/2014 1:32 PM

    Red River College needs a president — we know that much for sure.

    Nothing much else, though.

    RRC says it didn’t fire or push former president Stephanie Forsyth, and she didn’t resign. They parted ways Aug. 31 by mutual agreement, after Forsyth came to the board of governors somewhere vaguely in mid-to-late August to "discuss moving on."

    Forsyth left for personal and family reasons, RRC said. Forsyth hasn’t responded to media interview requests, presumably because she signed a non-disclosure agreement, just as did all those senior managers had who left involuntarily during the just-under four years Forsyth served as president.

    RRC won’t say if it paid Forsyth any kind of severance, just one item on a growing list of pieces of essential information that Red River says fall under confidential human resources matters.

    Public postsecondary schools receive money primarily from two sources — government operating grants, which not to put too fine a point on it means from my wallet and your wallet, and from student tuition fees.

    How it’s spent, apparently, is none of our business.

    The Canadian Taxpayers Federation received a copy of Forsyth’s contract a while back through a freedom of information request. It’s quite clear — both sides can end the contract by mutual agreement, Forsyth can walk away with four months’ notice, RRC can let her go without just cause with four months’ notice, including some additional payouts depending on when she finds another job.

    RRC won’t discuss any of that.

    Here’s something truly bizarre that Red River College says is a confidential human resources matter — RRC will not tell us what date that Forsyth last put in a day of work in her office on the public’s behalf.

    RRC won’t discuss how much vacation Forsyth was entitled to or when she last worked.

    The contract released by the taxpayers federation says she gets six weeks a year — reasonable — and can carry over only one week of unused vacation without the consent of the board of governors.

    We know that Forsyth was working in early June, because that’s when RRC put out the most recent press release of Forsyth’s taking part in a public event.

    It was around the end of June that I pitched a story to RRC communications that would have involved Forsyth — RRC said she was amenable, but the story depended on other people’s availability.

    We started calling in July about rumours concerning Forsyth. RRC told a colleague in July, and me in early August, that she was on the job.

    When her departure broke last week, RRC board chair Richard Lennon said that Forsyth had been on vacation at her own request since sometime in late June. No date.

    So, some simple arithmetic, 31 days in each of July and August, almost nine weeks, couple of stats in there, so eight weeks and a bit of vacation, plus whatever days she was on vacation in June. That exceeds her annual vacation entitlement, and RRC won’t tell us how much vacation she’d carried over, if any.

    Forsyth signed a five-year deal in September of 2010. Postsecondary schools typically decide at the four-year mark whether to offer a second term or look for a new prez, and presidents typically decide if they want to serve beyond the five years.

    RRC formed a president’s performance review committee in May, and as of last week, it was still thinking about it. Four months and counting to decide if you want to keep someone in the top job? Probably not a positive sign, although, again, RRC won’t say what, if anything, the performance review committee thought about Forsyth to this point in its due diligence.

    We’ll await the provincial investigation into RRC’s finances, leadership, and morale.

    Meanwhile, will RRC tell us about a search for a new president, and will it eventually tell us the new president’s name, or will that be another confidential human resources matter?

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  • Why bother involving education minister, teachers in schools?

    08/26/2014 12:04 PM

    I had been operating under the assumption that, as much as I knew about him, St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes is politically astute.

    Mayes has this idea to import City Year, an American organization that sends young people financed by corporate sponsors into at-risk schools to work with kids for a year. He’s set up three forums Thursday, one by invitation only, one at the Free Press News Café at 1:30 p.m., and a public forum at city hall at 4 p.m.

    You can read my story here.

    Basically, it’s a new version of the Peace Corps.

    He’s looking for at least 50 young people to work for a year.

    In the U.S., City Year reports significant academic and attendance and attitude progress among students in the schools in which City Year has operated.

    The youth workers are in the school from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., working one-on-one with kids on math and literacy, supervising homework, running after-school activities. Yes, that’s 11 hours a day.

    They’re paid $1,000 to $1,500 a month, they receive tuition vouchers when they resume or start postsecondary education, they wear nifty red uniforms bearing the corporate logo of their sponsor.

    Sounds pretty good, eh? Why wouldn’t we want that here?

    And maybe we do, and maybe it would work. Mayes said Monday that it may make more sense here to base City Year out of community centres or organizations such as food banks, rather than schools, given collective bargaining agreements and curricula and the like, though they’d still work with school kids.

    "I don’t think the school system here is in the same disrepair," said Mayes.

    No kidding.

    Keep in mind that Mayes is a New Democrat, not a union-busting right wing ideologue.

    Still...

    When you hold a large forum of community leaders to hear from American speakers about bringing a corporate-sponsored youth corps into public schools, do you think it might be useful to invite Education Minister James Allum?

    Not Mayes. He invited Children and Youth Opportunities Minister Kevin Chief, because the councillor reckoned that Chief had more to do with community agencies than Allum. Probably so, but it’s Allum who oversees the 200,000 or so school children in this province, and it's under the Public Schools Act that the government represented by the education minister decides who is allowed to set foot in a classroom.

    Let’s be charitable and say that City Year would work with classroom teachers and augment the work of other staff, rather than replacing unionized educational assistants, support staff, resource teachers, school office staff — if you look at the City Year website, those 11 hours a day involve doing a lot of work now performed here by trained, educated, and unionized people, at commensurate wages and benefits.

    So, you’re going to send corporate-sponsored youth workers into school classrooms and you’re not going to talk to the teachers’ union up front?

    OK, I guess, it seems to make sense to Mayes, so why should I quibble?

    Silly me, I thought that maybe the Manitoba Teachers’ Society would be high up there on the list of invited guests Thursday.

    A surprised MTS president Paul Olson told me Monday, "I have no awareness of this at all. To the best of my knowledge, no one at MTS knows anything about this. We have someone floating an idea who hasn’t thought to consult with the minister of education or with the people responsible for education.

    "Teachers should be asked what resources they need," Olson said. "A lot of people have no idea how hard the people in the school system are working. Talk to the unions responsible for the educational assistants and support staff in the schools — that would be the intelligent place to start.

    "I’m not impressed with the process," said Olson.

    Reacting to my story, Mayes said by email early Tuesday morning that he followed proper protocol by inviting the Manitoba Labour Council to Thursday’s forums.

    If you look at the typical City Year day that accompanies my story, the youth corps workers would spend an hour each day with kids one-on-one to work on literacy, and another hour one-on-one to work with kids about math. Sounds good. In public schools here, resource teachers with at least two university degrees do that work, the classroom teacher does that kind of work.

    Did it not occur to Mayes that maybe the teachers should hear from him first about having that kind of teaching performed by young people who likely have not yet finished university, and who are trained by a private organization that’s bankrolled by Corporate America, instead of finding out about it by opening their Free Press Tuesday morning?

    Just an idea to toss in there if you’re blue-skying the councillor’s plan.

    The typical City Year day has the youth corps sit down with the teacher for an hour at 1 p.m. to review how the children are doing. It doesn’t say so, but one might speculate that things might go better if it was specified that the teacher was in charge of that meeting.

    I would never try to channel Olson or get inside the head of a union boss, but I’m thinking, where is this teacher supposed to get that hour? Who watches the classroom while all this is going on? Is it the EA, if she’s still on the payroll? Does it come from prep time hard-won at the bargaining table, does it come from the work-free 55 minutes of lunch that teachers spent forever bargaining into their contracts?

    Of course, if you’re one of those who thinks that teachers need to work far harder and far longer, who thinks that teachers aren’t working before and after school and into the evenings and on weekends, and who thinks that unions get in the way, you may be quite fine with this scenario.

    City Year staff, as I noted, wear corporate-logo uniforms, and City Year talks about ways in which sponsors can participate in schools and have their employees participate. The NDP, and divisions such as Winnipeg School Division, are not all that keen about corporations allowed to run loose in public schools.

    Maybe Mayes knows something about the 2015 election, and maybe he knows there are other parties out there that might be OK with all this.

    Finally, Mayes was once a school trustee, but that was in Brandon. Maybe he hasn’t been on Winnipeg city council long enough to grasp the depth of animosity that councillors feel toward school boards.

    Every March, at budget time, some councillors will grumble about the city’s having to collect school taxes. Council, which has been known to freeze taxes while jacking up a horde of user fees unavailable to school boards, hauls out the sailors-on-shore-leave stereotype to describe trustees’ spending habits.

    Surely Mayes could have shown a little more sensitivity to the whole notion of how it might be perceived — a city councillor’s bringing an idea into public schools, without talking to the person in charge and the professionals in the schools?

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  • Saying you're a good person is not a campaign platform

    08/21/2014 3:07 PM

    School trustee elections are typically overrun with cliches.

    One candidate in Louis Riel — no, this time it’s Jeremy Friesen — seems to be taking umbrage on Twitter that I and others believe vows to promote transparency and to be of service to the public are not sufficient to constitute a campaign platform.

    Winnipeg School Division candidate Lisa Naylor says she’ll be accessible, accountable, and transparent — all admirable, but they should be givens, not the focus of a candidacy.

    Usually, candidates proclaim that they believe in a quality education and fiscal responsibility. I’ve said before that it would be news if they believe in a crummy education and in being fiscally irresponsible.

    What matters, and what people deserve to know, is how they define those terms, and how they would achieve them. Does fiscal responsibility mean having fewer teachers on the payroll, in order to hold down taxes? Buying less chalk?

    Transparency is all well and good, but how would a candidate achieve it? If elected, what will that candidate say to the Manitoba School Boards Association, whose workshops for newly-elected trustees immediately try to indoctrinate them into MSBA’s dogma that school boards are not individually-elected politicians but corporate boards of directors, meant to reach decisions by consensus, after which only the board chair will speak publicly about the majority decision?

    What will that candidate do about the legislation that allows trustees to go behind closed doors for labour and personnel matters, what will that trustee do about all the other stuff that boards do behind closed doors that they shouldn’t?

    Maybe those candidates could have a word or two with Mike Babinsky in Winnipeg School Division, and find out the price of opening your mouth about secret stuff that should be public?

    I remember when Derek Dabee got elected in Seven Oaks, and he told me that he’d be emulating Babinsky’s making things public, albeit in a less confrontational way, and in four years the only thing I’ve heard from Dabee is his urging me to do a feature on the expansion of school cricket.

    Check our archives, and find out how many times that trustees who do not chair their boards or who are not their board’s finance chair have had their name in the paper over the past four years, of their own volition?

    And as for serving the public...I’ve written at previous elections about candidates who say they’re promising to listen to residents and to represent their views at the school board.

    So, let’s take two examples of members of the public, both of whom you have promised to represent at the board, and both of whom you have promised to serve.

    Not that I know anyone like this, but let’s say that one person is a left-wing pro-union atheist in a strongly feminist household, who believes in science and evolution and in being gay-positive.

    And let’s say there’s another resident and member of the public whom you also represent, who’s right wing and religiously conservative, who believes public schools should still have mandatory religious exercises, and maybe has a Father Knows Best view of families, maybe wants creationism to replace evolution in the curriculum, and who would toss Bill 18 and anti-homophobia education into the garbage can (did I mention this person also opposes recycling?).

    So, you’ve promised to serve them both. How are you going to do it?

    Cliches are all well and good, but they need the substance of your taking positions on specific education issues. Voters need to know who you are, what your values are, and what positions you take on specific issues.

    And don’t get me started on candidates who declare that they have integrity — that’s a given, and don’t give me that nonsense that by saying you offer integrity, that you’re not implicitly, or even explicitly, saying that the incumbents and other candidates do not have integrity. Disingenuous doesn’t describe such a shameful tactic.

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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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