Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Some unhappy candidates and voters

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This has been quite a delightful few days fielding calls and emails from candidates and voters upset over our school board election coverage.

OK, with me specifically, upset with what I’ve done, or failed to do, or what I’ve proposed that the paper has subsequently carried out.

If you go to Pay Attention Class you’ll find all the election coverage so far from both the print and on-line editions, and you’ll find an enormous amount of information from some of the candidates themselves.

It’s a lot more information than we could ever reasonably expect to get in the paper.

Yes, it’s online, and I’m aware that not everyone owns a computer, and yes, for one reader to tell management that I’m "stupid" is fair ball.

We can never hope to have anywhere near the coverage in the paper that the mayoral candidates and council candidates receive. Maybe if Winnipeg ever goes to one school board like other cities our size and larger have done, coverage would be manageable, but not now.

There are 16 members of council, one winner to each race. Including the urban chunk of Seine River and the urban ward of the Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine, there are 61 seats in play for city school boards in 24 wards. It’s just not possible to conduct and publish incisive, in-depth interviews with every candidate — we don’t have the time or the space.

There’s not much out there from the candidates to help voters — I still haven’t heard of a single all-candidates’ meeting anywhere in the city, I haven’t received a single piece of literature or a visit from my ward’s three incumbents and three newcomers, signs build name recognition but tell you nothing. The idea of our on-line coverage was to expand the range of information available to voters, potentially to expand that range significantly.

Look, I’m a dinosaur but not a luddite. Today is the 39th anniversary of my first day in the business, so as of tomorrow I can say I’m in my 40th year in daily papers. I’d love to have unlimited space and all the resources necessary to run nothing but school board election coverage every day in the paper, but it’s not going to happen. But we can do a lot on the web we could never do in the paper, and that reaches a lot of people.

Though barely half the eligible candidates responded to our on-line survey, those that did have had the opportunity not only to take positions on the specific issues we raised, but were also free to write as much as they wanted on their division’s five major issues, their top five priorities for capital projects seeking provincial funding, and on budgeting. There are candidates you’ll know a whole lot more about by reading that section on our website.

There’ve been candidates pretty miffed with me that I didn’t send them a personal invitation to take part. We first announced our plans Sept. 25 in a full-page story on school board elections in the Saturday paper, and for more than three weeks now that on-line survey has been mentioned regularly in the paper and been displayed prominently each day on the home page of our website.

No, I didn’t invite every candidate personally to take part.

If I were a candidate — wait, who would ever vote for me? Start again. If I were communications director for a school board candidate, I would ensure that the candidate and his or her campaign team checked the media every day for school board election and education news.

That means reading the WFP. Whatever you think of me, I’m the only full-time education reporter in Manitoba — I’d be making sure my candidate knew what the WFP was reporting every day. I’d listen to the local shows on CBC radio, I’d monitor Cloutier, and I’d never miss a local TV news broadcast. And I’d be figuring out ways that my candidate could get his or her name in the mainstream media, preferably for positive reasons.

I’ll drop a candidate’s name here. Ed Hume is running in St. James-Assiniboia, and he tried to get me interested in doing a story on the levels of custodial services in the smallest elementary schools. I didn’t chase that story, but Hume made a game try to separate himself from the crowd.

The people who complained I hadn’t invited them to take part in our on-line coverage, I told them that they can still respond and get their answers posted, but they haven’t done so.

To digress a bit, I was amazed how few candidates across the city had created websites for their campaigns. Nor could I believe how many don’t have email to go along with their phones as campaign contacts.

I had people take issue with my pointing out that at least one candidate put her kids in faith-based private schools, yet wants to run the public system. Fair enough, of course she has the right to run. People taking issue with what I wrote point out that that candidate has the right to control the taxes she’s paying regardless of which school system her kids attend or regardless of having any kids at all. And if controlling taxes supersedes the quality of education as a priority for any candidate, that’s information voters will have and should have, which is why our on-line survey asks whether a candidate would consider or rule out a tax increase, and under what circumstance.

And as for the people who let me have it for taking issue with candidates who say they can’t take positions until they’re on the school board......no, I don’t expect candidates to be able to spell out now precisely what they’d do on every issue that could arise over the next four years, nor specify what decisions they’d make on umpteen issues that require working and reaching consensus with eight other trustees.

But voters need to know who the candidate is and what she or he is about. Candidates who cut and paste a list of priorities from a division website aren’t people who’ve done their homework and taken a serious look at what their jurisdiction and responsibilities and duties will be. A completely blank slate just doesn’t cut it, nor does telling voters that you’ll get back to them on your beliefs and values and goals once you’ve settled into your chair around the school board table.

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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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