Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

I dropped my WSD season ticket

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I've had people asking me why I no longer spend my Monday evenings going to Winnipeg School Division board meetings.

It was a ritual at least twice a month: start my shift in mid-afternoon, arrive at the board room around 6:50 p.m., hustle back to the office by 9 p.m. or so, and bang out several stories for deadline.

And have a couple more stories to follow up the next day.

But I haven't been very often in the last year or two.

The easy answer is that it's just not worth going.

I had way too many meetings in which I was out of there by 7:20 p.m. with nothing worth reporting. They just flew through the public agenda, which didn't have much to offer, some nights with nary a question or syllable of debate.

Yes, I knew that there was good stuff going on in-camera, but trustees had learned to wear tin foil hats so I couldn't follow their secret meetings on our special software.

I made that last part up.

There just doesn't seem to be a lot happening publicly in the division that's contentious or momentous. Feel free to clue me in, if you recognize that last sentence as totally clueless and are aware of lots of stuff happening in public session. That includes trustees with an axe to grind.....or who have an idealistic belief in democracy.

Anti-homophobia education was a decade ago. The comprehensive assessment program has settled into polite consultation between the union and the bureaucrats. The province won't let anyone close schools. Smoking is now banned on all school property, there's a nutrition policy in place, Gordon Bell High School is getting its field, the requests are in for gyms at Queenston and Kelvin, the board won't redraw the boundaries to create nine single-seat wards that would endanger their incumbency, and catchment areas and enrolment capping for schools of choice seem set. Trustees seem content with small tax increases.

Secrecy prevails in WSD. Find another public body which implements the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act more vigorously.

Then there's the matter of agendas.

Used to be, back in the late '90s, WSD killed a lot of trees to pump out agendas, which the media and others could get on the Friday before the Monday meeting. They contained copies of all the correspondence, all the business, and the background information for all of the items on the committee reports. The only thing left to come up on Monday nights were the inquiries, which could produce unexpected stuff from trustees.

Then several things happened.

During anti-homophobia, it hit the fan when two families headed by public figures, wrote separately but concurrently to the board and threatened to pull their kids out of WSD schools and put them in private schools unless the division dropped its plans to fight homophobia through the curriculum. The public figures, two fathers, totally freaked when they realized that their letters were on the public agenda and that I was writing a story.

Shortly after that, correspondence disappeared from the agenda.

Between a more secretive senior bureaucracy moving into place, and several trustees having their noses severely out of joint over media's writing advance stories over the weekend on business to come before the board on Monday evening, the agendas got pulled back to Monday release.

And then the agendas became one sheet saying only that the meeting started at 7 p.m. and the superintendent, and finance committee, and policy program committee would report, and eventually, there were no agendas at all.

One former board chair would chat with me on Friday about what was coming up Monday night, so I could gauge whether it was worth adjusting my shift and coming to the meeting. But that stopped too, come the following board election.

While he certainly wasn't the only one who did it, former trustee Roman Yereniuk would seriously come down on anyone who dared to talk to the media prior to a meeting. One time I knew that Rita Hildahl had filed a notice of motion at the previous meeting, that she'd be asking for board support that coming Monday on a health matter -- trying to ban designated smoking areas, I think -- and Yereniuk chewed her out royally at the board meeting's public session for talking to me when I phoned, rather than waiting for the board to deal with her motion.

And then there are the current board members themselves, who tend to work collegially, and are civil to each other, get along, and may even like each other. Alas, that's a bad thing in the news business.

Back in the day, there was an NDP majority and their BFF Anita Neville running the board, and most issues passed 6-3 -- sometimes 5-4 if Mario Santos was feeling ornery -- so there was far more debate. The late Lionel Orlikow loved to push buttons, which was usually good for a story or two. The right wingers and the N-Dippers would sit across the table and fire laser beams out of their eyes at each other, and rarely could a matter pass without considerable snippiness, some of which actually addressed the educational issue on the table.

Bottom line, talking productivity from someone who used to work 18-hour days without overtime in the early 1970s and no longer finds that attractive, it's rarely worth the risk of starting late, going to the board, and having nothing to show for it. Yes, diss me all you like for not being committed enough to go to all the area school boards, on spec, on my own time.

Bringing back agenda packages, even putting them on line and under embargo, would certainly help media judge when it's worth going to board meetings.

But then again, this WSD board and bureaucracy don't really mind not being noticed all that much.

So I'll pursue WSD the old-fashioned way, talking to people, looking for leads, working sources, looking for the stuff going on behind closed doors, where it appears that most business worth reporting is happening these days.

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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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