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Free advice for the new minister

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I’m sitting by the phone eagerly awaiting a return call from the spin doctors on my request for an initial sitdown with Education Minister Nancy Allan.

It’s not as though Allan is walking into an easy job that has no issues on the table.

Yes, I’m willing to save myself and every other Manitoban some tax dollars by offering freebie advice, no need to hire outside consultants to identify the issues the minister will face over the next few months.

First up, that complex, convoluted, and confusing funding formula for public school operating grants, the one that so many people dislike — if they can understand it at all — with which the government has been tinkering for years.

The education minister typically announces in late January the changes in operating grants for the next year, so that school boards can set their mill rates by March 15.

School trustees — wait, hang on, Allan used to be a trustee, right? In the former Norwood and St. Boniface school divisions, now rolled into the Louis Riel S.D. Three teachers in a row had been education minister, three teachers who tried to limit school trustees’ authority and chipped away at their autonomy.

Gosh, wonder how this will play out?

Predecessor Peter Bjornson had threatened last March to impose a cap on education property tax increases this year, maybe even freeze them across the board. I’ll be asking Allan if she’ll impose any caps.

Then there’s TIG, the tax incentive grant that few people really comprehend, which Bjornson introduced two years ago and which he had not yet committed to repeating in 2010. That’s the one that a lot of people think is free money, but is actually conditional cash on top of the operating grant offered to school divisions whose trustees agree to freeze education property taxes — even if it means cutting jobs, programs and services which the school boards believe they would need to fund through increased taxes in order to provide a quality education to their residents’ kids.

Which brings us to surpluses, which Bjornson didn’t like and which he wanted school boards to dip into to hold down taxes. Bjornson has been telling school trustees to use surplus to pay for all the additional costs of H1N1, such as sanitizers and substitute teachers. Bjornson had last year ordered school boards to keep their surpluses at no more than two per cent of their revenues.

Back when Allan was a school trustee, the conventional wisdom for municipal councils and school boards was to have five per cent in surplus — oh, and it wasn’t called a surplus then and isn’t now at the local political level, it’s called a contingency reserve fund, and was considered to be a fiscally prudent thing to have.

One might ask Allan if she’ll continue the government’s practice of telling school boards to freeze taxes while loading on more and more financial pressures — not bad things, mind you, they’re generally improvements to a quality education, but costly ones which bear price tags, and which are hard to do under a tax freeze unless there are cuts elsewhere.

Such as, for instance, nutrition policies — there’s no provincial money for school cafeterias — and compulsory grades 11 and 12 phys ed credits which require schools to hire more phys ed teachers, even though provincial grants don’t cover all those extra salaries, not even close.

Back to the funding formula......Allan had to deal with school board budgets back in the day, so she’ll understand how Seven Oaks S.D. could have the highest education property taxes in the city while spending less per student than four other divisions. Or how Pembina Trails S.D. with its high housing values can enjoy almost twice as much property assessment per student as Seven Oaks. Or Winnipeg S.D. can finance oodles of programs despite such low residential property values.

The supposedly equitable public education system is still based on the assessed value of property within a division, including the billions in office, factory and retail property assessment that a lucky division such as Winnipeg or St. James-Assiniboia has within its boundaries, or a division such as Seven Oaks sadly lacks.

And then a biggie — Bjornson’s moratorium on school closings, despite inexorably steadily declining enrolment that leaves hordes of empty seats in older schools, while the government refuses to build new schools in outlying suburbs.

Trustees in Louis Riel S.D. allege that Allan and several other New Democrat MLAs had a hand in Bjornson’s edict to keep schools open, because there were schools in their ridings threatened with closure, and it’s never a wise thing to give people a reason to go to the polls and vote against you. Four schools in Louis Riel were threatened with closure, until Bjornson’s moratorium.

That moratorium was open-ended, and could be lifted any time — any bets?

And hey, there are always teacher salaries, and the province-wide bargaining that Bjornson wouldn’t touch unless the trustees and teachers all agreed they wanted. Pretty hard to freeze taxes when teachers’ salaries are way more than half the costs of running the system, and they’re annually increasing three per cent plus increments plus some cash bonuses plus some catch-up guarantees with other divisions, and no one seems eager to reduce the number of educators working in our schools.

We’ll leave amalgamation and the possibility of one city-wide public school division for Winnipeg for another day.

But one final thing, minister......

Peter Bjornson was, and undoubtedly still is, one of this country’s finest history teachers. When he was at Gimli High, Bjornson wore jeans and had this Viking beard, and taught and talked in ways that engaged kids. When he became education minister, Bjornson shaved, wore suits, and dropped plain English in favour of dialoguing with stakeholders throughout the education community to seek a consensus that would achieve best pedagogical practices and positive learning outcomes.

Sigh.

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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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