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What the trustees spend on themselves

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Hands up if I didn’t get around to getting you miffed in the school-related stories that ran over the holiday period.

Specifically, apart from trustees and teachers.

First of all, before we get to teachers’ salaries in a day or two, let’s deal with trustees.

What Manitoba taxpayers pay school trustees in stipends and compensation is a drop in the bucket, less than $9 million in a budget of more than $1.82 billion to operate public schools this year.

But the optics aren’t pretty, when trustees’ spending on themselves increases by 5.2 per cent and their spending on children is up by 4.2 per cent.

Should trustees in the Virden area spend 1.3 per cent of Fort la Bosse School Division’s budget on themselves, almost triple the provincial average? Mileage and open-ended professional development make up a big chunk of that money.

Should Garden Valley trustees in Winkler and Plum Coulee tie their stipends to maintaining the same per-student spending on trustees, when enrolment is skyrocketing and the formula means an automatic raise for the school board?

Just how much should a school trustee be compensated for her or his time?

Why do so many rural school boards need the maximum nine trustees, when the province allows boards of five or seven? The majority of rural divisions has about one trustee per school, and a dozen have more than one per school when you take Hutterite colony schools out of the equation. They’re tiny schools whose catchment area is the colony itself, and no one in the system can remember any colony member’s ever running for a school board seat.

So you have a division such as Turtle Mountain, which has nine trustees governing three town schools in Boissevain, Killarney and Minto.

Very few rural divisions with nine trustees can make the geographic-equity claim that they need one trustee per town or village.

And yes, it’s also a drop in the bucket financially to have nine trustees rather than seven or five, but the optics aren’t great, when you have people such as the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation demanding that the province abolish school boards.

This isn’t one of the top priorities in public education.

But......

Trustees set their own stipends and their own compensation, and good luck finding any comprehensive report comparing the three dozen boards across the province.

People don’t get elected to school board to get rich, but they are compensated with public funds. And I know that the job doesn’t just entail a couple of board meetings and a committee meeting or two per month, it means never-ending calls at home from parents, and being button-holed in the community, and going to bazillions of school concerts and pageants and awards nights and graduation ceremonies, and driving enormous distances on two-lane roads covered with snow and ice.

But it’s still public money.

So why isn’t there someplace that people can look to see how much trustees are paid in every division? Starting with base stipend, then showing if there’s additional money for being a board chair or committee chair. Then listing if there’s additional money for attending certain types of meetings, or per diems for being on the bargaining committee.

There should be — jargon alert — transparency in detailing whether increases are tied to inflation, or to the percentage increase negotiated with employees, or some other factor.

Is mileage paid? If so, how much per kilometre, and in what circumstances?

And where else in the $1.82 billion is there no uniformity in reporting? It doesn’t really make sense to include the costs of this coming October’s general election under trustees’ spending, but either every division should lump the election costs there, or preferably everyone should list it under a separate category.

Nancy, this probably doesn’t make your top 10 priorities, but it’s worth sorting out one of these days. And no fair blaming it on Filmon’s ministers — they’ve been gone getting on 11 years now, and it was the three previous NDP education ministers who chipped away inexorably at trustees’ autonomy and jurisdiction while allowing school boards free rein over their own costs.

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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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