Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • Liberals have education vision, few detailed policies

    09/25/2014 12:26 PM

    Rana Bokhari sure doesn’t think much of the state of public education in Manitoba.

    "We failed at math, we failed at science, we failed at reading," the recently-elected leader of the Manitoba Liberals said when we sat down to explore her party’s education policy. "Clearly, it’s not a money issue — we’re missing something."

    Our talk wandered all over the map, with few details or specifics, so I can’t give you a shopping list of how the Liberals stand on all the things the NDP has done in the past 15 years — the moratorium on closing schools, greater emphasis on nutrition and physical education, Bill 13 for special needs, Bill 18 for anti-homophobia protection, continuing the reliance on property taxes, continuing to base inequitable education on the assessed values of properties in an area, capping tuition increases, literally dozens of policies that delight and infuriate disparate groups and individuals.

    "I’m not going to sit here and bash the NDP...and the Tories," said Bokhari, who bemoaned the lack of research staff funding that plagues parties with just one MLA — former leader Jon Gerrard. Nor, she said, is she about to lay out her platform this far ahead of an election.

    "We can’t make policy just for the election cycle," said Bokhari, but it’s vital that the province train young people and keep them here. "We’re losing our tax base" when young people leave Manitoba. "We need to keep our young people in this province — when they go, our economic base goes," she said: "It’s going to slam us in the face."

    Bokhari said she won’t promise the Liberals would remove property taxes from funding education until they know the numbers: "I won’t be irresponsible. If the province is going to fund it, where is the province going to get the money?"

    I pointed out that the numbers are there, down to the penny, in the FRAME (Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education) annual report, all $2.1 billion or so of it. I told Bokhari that whenever anyone talks about the province’s funding 100 per cent of public education, I always ask, 100 per cent of what? Who determines in that situation how much each school division has to spend, since there is such a wide, sometimes enormous, spread in per-student spending, based largely on local assessment bases and the willingness to tax.

    Bokhari is a huge supporter of early childhood education, and would licence day care centres more quickly. But would she fund them, and if so, to what degree? Not ready to address that yet.

    The Canadian Federation of Students has told her that what Bokhari calls a tuition freeze is "not a freeze at all," she said.

    Well, no, it isn’t, it’s a formula that caps tuition increases by linking fee hikes to provincial economic growth.

    "We’re pricing it out to see if it’s necessary," she said.

    People need to know years ahead what their funding levels will be, Bokhari said, pointing out that the NDP reneged in 2013 on the third year of a three-year promise to increase operating grants five per cent.

    I ventured that operating grants and tuition levels are legislated, and that people know the formula. Legislation can be revoked, she countered — of course it can, but without legislation that the next government has to revoke, how does any government commit to long-term funding beyond its mandate?

    Bokhari’s dumping all over the state of education is based on the OECD’s testing of random 15-year-olds in developed countries every three years. While Manitoba students do better than kids in many industrialized countries, we’re falling — falling, I did not use the word ‘failing’ — in comparison to other provinces, from mid-range to near-bottom the last couple of times around.

    The Manitoba Liberals want to see improvement, Bokhari declared.

    Again, I asked how they’d do that, and how they’d measure it. I raised testing. Testing, she said, is irrelevant if the kids haven’t been taught properly in the first place. OK, so how would they measure?

    Maybe it’s the fault of the curriculum, Bokhari said, maybe Manitoba should look at what other provinces are doing.

    They’ve been doing the latter for a while now — one reason why former minister Nancy Allan brought in a start-with-the-basics of arithmetic curriculum.

    Bokhari said that the province needs to know if a school is not doing well. How that would be measured, wait for details.

    "It’s not our style to be wishy-washy," declared Bokhari.

    And there we left it, lots of vision, few details.

    But wait, there’s more.

    About 46 minutes after I left Bokhari’s office, a staffer emailed me some more specific details of the Manitoba LIberals’ education policies that somehow had not come up in response to my direct questions about specifics and details.

    Take a read:

    "We are still costing everything out and consulting with stakeholders but because we had to (sic) our time short today due to an event she is attending we did want to give a brief backgrounder on where we stand.

    "Our ultimate goal is to make Manitoba’s education system the best in Canada, and right now that will take a lot of work.

    "The NDP government has failed at improving education. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report clearly shows that. Over the last decade our test scores in math, science and reading have fallen 36 points and that is unacceptable. While OECD testing is not the greatest measurable we still must improve. We will strike a task force made up of educators, student leaders and parents to create a better, more accurate way to measure student success. This is a priority for us.

    "Class Sizes — We are currently in the process of seeing what reduced class sizes will cost not just in elementary school but in middle school and high school as well. There are many differing opinions on if class size actually influences a students’ ability to learn and we will be listening to experts before we make any long term commitment on class sizes.

    "Student Debt — We will revise the Manitoba student loan program to make it more inclusive and will enact policy that makes interest payments on those loans to be deducted from income tax following graduation.

    "Post-Secondary Tuition Freeze — In regards to the NDP enacted "tuition freeze" that really isn’t a freeze, what we have seen as the result of that is our post-secondary institutions are in desperate need of funds to make needed infrastructure and programming improvements. We will re-evaluate the cost of post-secondary education in Manitoba so that it will benefit the students and our institutions. Our priority is ensuring that a world-class education is available in Manitoba and accessible to Manitobans and students from across the country and around the world.

    "Accountability — We will make sure that there is no more secrecy at the school board level. What we have seen recently in Winnipeg School Division 1 cannot continue. School board decisions need to be transparent. The NDP have known about the practices of school boards for years but continue to not be accountable to anyone on this issue. We will institute an enforceable Trustee Code of Conduct that we will hold all Trustees to account and we will make sure all School Board decisions are open and transparent.

    "Educational Infrastructure — We will be committed to ensuring that growing communities not just in Winnipeg but all across Manitoba have the funding and support they need. This may be through the hiring on new teachers to support the growth and the building and of new schools and the improving of our current infrastructure."

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  • Personal attacks taking over school board elections

    09/22/2014 11:29 AM

    There’s some really nasty stuff showing up on social media about these upcoming school board elections.

    Twitter is starting to look like those TV commercials we see during elections in The States, the ones in which candidates attack their opponents rather than present the positive reasons they themselves should be elected.

    When you read them, keep in mind that the people posting these tweets want to be the stewards of our children’s education.

    Here’s one from Lee Doerksen, a candidate in Ward 3 of Winnipeg SD: "Charter Schools like Hitler Youth? Labour Council Trustee M. Wasyliw tweets link wp.me/p2odLa-8CT Why???"

    Start with the reference to Labour Council Trustee (in caps). No points for subtlety.

    I follow incumbent trustee Mark Wasyliw on Twitter and haven’t yet found this link he allegedly posted. What Wasyliw does is regularly post links to reasoned, thoughtful analytical pieces that other people have written about issues in education, many of them in the U.S. I read this particular link, a blog written by a professor of history and education at New York University, and it talks about a charter school in the U.S. which supposedly demands a high level of unquestioning obedience to authority from children. If you read way, way down, you’ll come to a commenter who makes allusions to the Hitler Youth and the Red Guard.

    And on that basis, Doerksen takes a shot at Wasyliw, and asks ‘Why???’

     I've emailed Wasyliw but have yet to hear back. this morning.

    Then there is David Lobson, a Ward 1 WSD candidate, who has expressed admiration for Doerksen on Twitter and who said this weekend that labour candidates are there for labour, and not for children. Fair enough, though backing it up would be helpful.

    Lobson tweeted: "Babinsky Sneesby and ramos tell the truth. The others?"

    Those people would be incumbents Mike Babinsky, running for re-election; Jackie Sneesby, not running; and Anthony Ramos, running for city council.

    The clear implication is that the other six incumbents, two of whom are seeking re-election, do not tell the truth — no evidence, no elaboration. Not a reasoned criticism of their policies, of their decisions on programs, not even of the penchant for doing business behind closed doors — just a cheap shot at six people’s integrity.

    Meanwhile, I’ve never seen a situation such as the one in Louis Riel School Division, in which a school board candidate dragged the family of the division’s superintendent into the public eye for potential political gain.

    Ward 4 of LRSD candidate Jeremy Friesen demanded to know on Twitter what it says about the public education system when highly-educated people with influence over public education are sending their children to private schools. He was talking about LRSD superintendent Duane Brothers.

    He kept it up, telling people to ask Brothers why public school enrolment is declining in Manitoba.

    Anyone who’s seen Friesen’s tweets and blog will recognize that he’s running as an outsider against a perceived establishment, that he’s running to fix a system he believes to be broken. He’s not the first to do so — though he is the first that I can recall who tried to place the children of a senior educator in a negative context in order to win votes.

    Brothers was quite naturally very taken aback to find a candidate — a man who could be one of his bosses in a few weeks — using his children as an election ploy.

    Brothers said that both of his children are "in a great public school.

    "I fight for public education, always have. Decisions on where we send our children to is complex, usually involves other adults (the other parent), with the mutual goal of what’s best for each individual child.

    "Given the decision is not mine alone, yes I do believe him to be out of bounds."

    Wednesday morning, Friesen acknowledged on Twitter that he should have spoken to Brothers.

    Set aside for a moment that enrolment in public schools has been pretty much stable for several years, and that enrolment is increasing in Louis Riel School Division. Set aside for a moment that Louis Riel School Division is the province’s leader in promoting French immersion, and was the second division to adopt specifically anti-homophobia education plans. Set aside for a moment that Statistics Canada has tracked for years an overall decline in the Manitoba birthrate. Set aside for a moment that enrolment in funded independent schools has levelled off, and that the growth has been in home-schooling and in non-funded independent schools, the tiny rural schools usually based around a specific faith group.

    Forget all that, it’s superfluous to what’s happening here.

    Is this the way we want to decide who will be the elected stewards of our children’s education?

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  • Here's the real election excitement

    09/15/2014 11:05 AM

    It’s looking as though I should get to know Dean Koshelanyk.

    With a day and a half or so to go before nominations close at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, he’s the only registered candidate for the Ward 9 school board seat in Winnipeg School Division.

    Across the city, we’re still looking at acclamations in 10 seats in four of the 25 wards — Seven Oaks Ward 3, Silver Heights-Booth in St. James-Assiniboia, and Ward 2 in Louis Riel.

    I’d been getting all giddy on Friday, seeing close to 75 candidates in the first three days, but it’s really slowed down. We’re still short of 90 candidates Monday morning, there are 35 incumbents running, and most of the other incumbents have made their plans known.

    Gone are the days when we had 11 or 12 candidates seeking the two or three seats in a ward. Four years ago, there were 96 candidates for the 52 city seats in six divisions, with six seats acclaimed.

    There’s going to be some major upheaval brought about by new people in considerable numbers.

    Only three incumbents are running in WSD. I was talking to Mike Babinsky, who’s revelled for 19 years at being an outsider — maverick is one of the terms commonly applied to him, probably the most polite one — and I suggested to him that if he gets re-elected, that if he can avoid ticking everyone off at the first meeting, the rookies might look at all that experience and make him board chair.

    Might.

    Meanwhile, a candidate in LRSD tells me that a retiring trustee has endorsed her. Sorry, I need him to tell me that, as Kristine Barr did when she told me she’s endorsed both Lisa Naylor and Kevin Settee. Keen observers may recall an MP who recently pumped out a news release saying that she had not, repeat not, employed a certain candidate, contrary to other disseminated information.

    Such incredible excitement there’s going to be for the next 29 and one-half hours.

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  • Is anything at Red River College any of our business?

    09/8/2014 1:32 PM

    Red River College needs a president — we know that much for sure.

    Nothing much else, though.

    RRC says it didn’t fire or push former president Stephanie Forsyth, and she didn’t resign. They parted ways Aug. 31 by mutual agreement, after Forsyth came to the board of governors somewhere vaguely in mid-to-late August to "discuss moving on."

    Forsyth left for personal and family reasons, RRC said. Forsyth hasn’t responded to media interview requests, presumably because she signed a non-disclosure agreement, just as did all those senior managers had who left involuntarily during the just-under four years Forsyth served as president.

    RRC won’t say if it paid Forsyth any kind of severance, just one item on a growing list of pieces of essential information that Red River says fall under confidential human resources matters.

    Public postsecondary schools receive money primarily from two sources — government operating grants, which not to put too fine a point on it means from my wallet and your wallet, and from student tuition fees.

    How it’s spent, apparently, is none of our business.

    The Canadian Taxpayers Federation received a copy of Forsyth’s contract a while back through a freedom of information request. It’s quite clear — both sides can end the contract by mutual agreement, Forsyth can walk away with four months’ notice, RRC can let her go without just cause with four months’ notice, including some additional payouts depending on when she finds another job.

    RRC won’t discuss any of that.

    Here’s something truly bizarre that Red River College says is a confidential human resources matter — RRC will not tell us what date that Forsyth last put in a day of work in her office on the public’s behalf.

    RRC won’t discuss how much vacation Forsyth was entitled to or when she last worked.

    The contract released by the taxpayers federation says she gets six weeks a year — reasonable — and can carry over only one week of unused vacation without the consent of the board of governors.

    We know that Forsyth was working in early June, because that’s when RRC put out the most recent press release of Forsyth’s taking part in a public event.

    It was around the end of June that I pitched a story to RRC communications that would have involved Forsyth — RRC said she was amenable, but the story depended on other people’s availability.

    We started calling in July about rumours concerning Forsyth. RRC told a colleague in July, and me in early August, that she was on the job.

    When her departure broke last week, RRC board chair Richard Lennon said that Forsyth had been on vacation at her own request since sometime in late June. No date.

    So, some simple arithmetic, 31 days in each of July and August, almost nine weeks, couple of stats in there, so eight weeks and a bit of vacation, plus whatever days she was on vacation in June. That exceeds her annual vacation entitlement, and RRC won’t tell us how much vacation she’d carried over, if any.

    Forsyth signed a five-year deal in September of 2010. Postsecondary schools typically decide at the four-year mark whether to offer a second term or look for a new prez, and presidents typically decide if they want to serve beyond the five years.

    RRC formed a president’s performance review committee in May, and as of last week, it was still thinking about it. Four months and counting to decide if you want to keep someone in the top job? Probably not a positive sign, although, again, RRC won’t say what, if anything, the performance review committee thought about Forsyth to this point in its due diligence.

    We’ll await the provincial investigation into RRC’s finances, leadership, and morale.

    Meanwhile, will RRC tell us about a search for a new president, and will it eventually tell us the new president’s name, or will that be another confidential human resources matter?

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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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