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What’s going on, Nancy?

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We’ve established that Education Minister Nancy Allan telephoned Mystery Lake school board chair Robert Pellizzaro on Wednesday, the day after Thompson school trustees voted not to reinstate fired high school principal Ryan Land.

Read it here.

And that’s all we know for sure, in one of the most extraordinarily bizarre ongoing sagas in public education in many years.


Is there anyone else out there who thinks that public officials should be coming clean about what in the world is going on in Thompson’s public schools system?

The pages of The Thompson Citizen are filled with people talking about what is by far the most turmoil-ridden school division in the province, but none of us has much to report from the people directly involved, the people responsible to the electorate who are making first-hand decisions and who are privy to first-hand information.

Allan isn’t talking.

The minister dispatched her deputy minister Gerald Farthing to Thompson last month to investigate. Allan won’t say what Farthing told her, and she won’t allow him to be interviewed.

Allan won’t talk about Thompson at all. Wednesday, her staff said that Allan had at long last agreed to be interviewed, but come late afternoon, her aide issued a statement instead, which said that Allan had telephoned Pellizzaro, they’ll continue to talk, end of story. Allan was too busy with budget preparations to be interviewed, said the aide, even though Allan announced the operating budget for education in January and she and Premier Greg Selinger announced the capital budget Monday, leaving not an awful lot of new stuff about education to be included in next Tuesday’s provincial budget.

Pellizzaro isn’t responding to emails requesting an interview.

When I approached Thompson trustees at the Manitoba School Boards Association convention three weeks ago — Pellizzaro wasn’t there, even though the program listed him as a delegate — they wouldn’t talk to me.

Thompson Mayor Tim Johnston took what may be an unprecedented step a couple of months ago when he publicly demanded that Allan review the Mystery Lake school division. Johnston won’t return numerous calls for interview requests, maintaining his previous pattern when I tried several times this winter to get his views on the new University College of the North campus in Thompson.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society isn’t publicly-elected, and isn’t compelled to talk to me, but MTS is way involved in all of this.

Right now, MTS is livid with me, because today’s story said the union wouldn’t respond to an interview request. MTS did phone back late in the day Wednesday to say it wouldn’t talk, so I guess all the union will talk about is semantics, not substance.

Mystery Lake board publicly rebuked Land last spring, conducting personnel matters in public that no other division would dream of doing outside of closed doors, then fired him publicly in March, and reaffirmed his firing in public this week. MTS will not talk about that, nor will it talk about a second member of the union’s bargaining unit, a vice-principal at R.D. Parker Collegiate whom the school board publicly demoted.

I also asked MTS to talk about how difficult it will be for Thompson to attract quality administrators given the track record of firings and demotions and sudden resignations, and how that would affect the quality of education in Thompson, which seemed like a reasonable question and one which would be in the public interest, but MTS won’t talk about that either.

Mystery Lake has had three superintendents and eight assistant superintendents in the past three years; R.D. Parker has had three principals and nine vice-principals.

Sources say that MTS is already working on a grievance over the school board’s public rebuke of Land last spring. That’s one of the reasons why MTS staff officer Bobbi Ethier has been in Thompson, along with her presence at the March board meeting implicitly letting trustees know that if they act punitively against any teacher for speaking out, they’ll face a world of hurt. It stands to reason that MTS will not allow Mystery Lake to fire and demote union members without consequence.

One does not need to be a lawyer in order to speculate on a range of options available to Land, through MTS.

Which brings us to how much public money that Mystery Lake is spending on buyouts and settlements with senior employees who’ve been shown the door in recent years.

The school board won’t tell citizens who ask.

Mystery Lake collected $7,291,534 in 2010-2011 from local property owners, and $29,368,511 from the province — which means, from all of us — and one way or another, that money for paying ex-employees is somewhere in there.

There’s no column in the FRAME report (Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education) labelled ‘pot of money to persuade fired staff to go quietly’, but I did sift through FRAME and play with my calculator.

The cost of administration in the regular instruction programs — which includes principals and vice-principals — rose to $2.52 million in all Thompson schools this year from $2.08 million a year ago, a jump of 21.4 per cent. The provincial average increase was 2.6 per cent.

Spending per student reflects all the money a division spends for all purposes. In one year, spending per student in all Thompson schools has gone up $1,425, compared to $430 across Manitoba. That’s an increase of 12.1 per cent in Thompson, compared to 4.6 per cent province-wide.

All sorts of turmoil is going on in Thompson, a community small enough for people to know each other, for neighbours to choose up sides. There’s talk about the possible implications of three of the seven trustees having spouses who work in the school division, two of them in the high school; talk of who made the short list for superintendent the last time around; talk of people in the community being approached and urged to speak out for and against Land; talk that graduation rates went up Land’s one full year, which the province won’t confirm or refute. None of this can be good for the quality of public education in Thompson.

It’s time that the education minister told us what’s going on.

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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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