Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • Why school taxes are going up volume 2015 chapter 1

    01/23/2015 4:30 PM

    I’m pretty late to pontificating on Theresa Oswald’s education announcements, covered splendidly by colleague Larry Kusch.

    But it does tie into events of next week, when Education and Advanced Learning Minister Peter Bjornson should be making the annual announcement about operating grants for the K-12 system.

    Here’s some of what Larry wrote:

    "NDP leadership candidate Theresa Oswald would introduce free in-school tutoring for subjects such as reading and math and continue a government policy of linking school funding increases to provincial economic growth rate.

    "While unveiling her education platform Thursday, Oswald said she would hire more teachers to reduce class sizes and double funding for school breakfast and nutrition programs.

    "As well, she said she would expand "successful targeted education models" such as summer programs, community schools and parent-child centres and the Aboriginal Head Start program, which targets preschoolers."

    And further down, Larry related that Oswald said the tutoring and stuff would cost $5 million, and reported the money would be in addition to...pause for suspense...: "Oswald estimated the cost of increasing school funding at the rate of economic growth for the coming year at $25 million."

    Well, golly gee whiz, didn’t that usurp Bjornson 2.0’s announcement?

    Not really. That’s what it’s been for years, the level of provincial growth, two per cent or so, $25 million give or take.

    Yes, I’m about to start in on the complex, convoluted, confusing and confounding intricacies of public education funding, and someone let me know when Colin Craig’s eyes glaze over.

    The money Bjornson announces next week will be an increase on the province’s share of funding public education. It sounds like a lot of money, and it is — but the province only covers a ballpark 60 per cent of the cost of the $2.1-billion-and-counting operating cost of public education.

    Normally, the costs increase from three-point-something to four-point-something per cent each year, or go up by around $65 million to $80 million.

    So that leaves maybe $50 million or so for school boards to cover through education property tax increases, or through cuts to jobs, programs, and services.

    Sorry, I should have warned you that the latter was coming, I’ll pause while you guffaw. I didn’t say that they would ever make cuts, I just point out that it’s a technical possibility.

    Nor do I advocate cutting. But I do point out, as in Oswald’s plans, that the trend has been to keep adding to the teacher workforce even though public school enrolment has dwindled or been stagnant in pretty much each of the last 20 years.

    Already, six school divisions have settled contracts for the current school year at two per cent increases plus increments and various improvements in benefits. That leaves 31 divisions still bargaining, an unusual situation I’ve covered previously, but once again everyone seems to be settling at the same salary increase level, with local variations.

    More teachers on the payroll, higher pay. The province covers maybe a third of the higher costs.

    That means school property taxes will be going up, again, when trustees set their budgets by March 15. You didn’t really expect anything different, did you?

    In other stuff...

    Just wondering, Winnipeg School Division board finance chair and budget boss Sherri Rollins, but while you’re adding fat to your already bloated and padded budget, (can I appease the anonymous on-line trolls so easily? I fear not), could you see about fixing the hand dryer in the boys’ change room at Lord Selkirk School? The guys in the Leisure Guide volleyball program would appreciate it, as, I expect, would the boys at the school.

    Moving on...

    There’s an education activist in Winkler who copies me on his advice to government. Thanks, I appreciate it, but could I be so rude as to point out that we’re now on our second education minister since Nancy Allan held the job? Might want to update your mailing list.

    And switching gears completely...

    Really weird to get lost in Winnipeg.

    I was at the airport picking someone up late at night, and we were going straight to Victoria Hospital, so I took 90 south. I realized later that it’s been a while since I went that way on Route 90 in daylight, at least that far south, and that I usually go through the city to Pembina to get from work to U of M.

    Anyway, we’re suddenly confronted with that new split and ramp and overpass, and I ended up taking the Waverley exit instead of Bishop Grandin East, and then made a poor choice of exit to try to get back to where we wanted to be going, and there we were, all of an instance, in the middle of absolute nowhere.

    Well, we were somewhere, Waverley West to be generalizing. There was nary a house to be seen for kilometres, there were lights off towards the southeast horizon, and a traffic light or two way, way off.

    But we were lost. We were on beautiful roadways, with no potholes, nifty curbs, the land apparently graded, for kilometres. We set off vaguely towards what we thought might be Waverley or Pembina off in the distance, driving through a vast wasteland.

    My relative thought it was like a Stephen King novel, I thought it more like the original Twilight Zone first season, though, alas, there was no signpost just ahead. We drove, and drove, and drove, passing through at least half a dozen roundabouts, another vehicle occasionally passing by. At one point I turned off a roundabout, the road widened, and my relative pointed out that there’d been an overhead sign visible only to oncoming traffic, and suggesting that maybe we were on a main thoroughfare of some kind that was one way the other way.


    I did a u-ee, and back we went. Every once in a while we’d pass a monument on the median, stuff such as marking the entrance to Bridgewater Centre or some such neighbourhood still to be built.

    My relative consulted her smartphone, opined that maybe Lee Boulevard was ahead, but no sign to be seen. We weaved and twisted and somehow reached a traffic light, went left towards the distant signs of civilization, and eventually reached housing and a sign for Tim Sale Way, honouring the former minister in the not-really NDP heartland of southwest Winnipeg.

    I recognized that if I’d been coming from the left through that intersection, that it’s the way I’d go to Grandmont soccer field in St. Norbert, so we were finally saved, land in sight, we were able to pick through the edge of suburbia to Waverley and get up to Bison Drive and the Vic.

    Who knew all of this existed? Like, not just on paper, but on the ground? And are there people driving around there trying to find their way out, before they run out of gas?


  • Miami worth a trip in January

    01/16/2015 3:10 PM

    Just to keep you off balance, I like to do stories such as this one in Thursday’s paper, which shows both that I do so go outside the Perimeter, and that I do so not always write about bad kids and bad teachers doing bad things in bad schools.

    That was a hoot to go out to Miami and see the seriously woolly social studies project being thoroughly enjoyed by all the kids in teacher Elaine R. Owen’s class.

    The R is important, crucial even, because there is also an Elaine Owen who is a trustee on the Prairie Rose School Division school board, in which Miami sits, and the two know each other and live not all that far from each other.

    I wish I could tell you that diligent journalism and dogged determination led to that story.

    Alas, it was a friend of Owen’s who emailed Big Editor (not her real name) and urged a story about this terrific teacher, and it eventually worked its way down the food chain until it landed on the lowly proletarian drone.

    There are all sorts of ways that we find out about things that lead to stories, but the most basic is people telling us. I talk to people, I read minutes, I talk to people, I look at newsletters and bulletin boards, I follow Twitter, I talk to people.

    When we went up to Flin Flon, I found out about Cranberry Portage school on the old radar base from Nancy Allan, I found out about the incredible Egg Lake project from deputy education minister Gerald Farthing. When we went up to Grand Rapids this past September, I figured, let’s call the superintendent and see what’s happening at the school while we’re there, and came up with two really good stories.

    There’s no way I can promise that we’ll do a story if you get in touch with us, but I’ll listen each time; I wish I could tell you that there’s a magic formula for something happening in a school that innovative and intriguing and unusual enough to pique our interest — Elaine R. Owen certainly met all the criteria.

    So if you’ve got a friend who’s a nifty teacher, or your colleague down the hall is doing something really neat, you don’t even need to drop a dime — give them up at


  • Delighted to be mobile at 8 a.m.

    12/23/2014 3:08 PM

    I’ll be away until Jan. 5, so I’ll leave you with a bit of soccer, starting with the amazing experience I had a few weeks ago when Scotty beamed me down to a parallel universe.

    I had two skill-level matches with teenaged girls one weekday evening, and in 120 minutes of play, I can’t recall a coach yelling at me, or even muttering while making a miffed face.

    There was the one time when I went into contortions to avoid getting drilled by a ball, and the parents chortled loudly at me, leading me to hope that they have similar reflexes when they’re going on 67, but I digress....

    It was a very unexpected pleasant experience, and I realized that it’s been a year or two since I caught any flack from one particular club’s teams, two of whom played that night — I won’t name it, lest I place a curse on myself, but I’ve run into some very good coaches from that club who are unfailingly cordial and collegial. No, I won’t name that club, but now how do I get this image of Cary Grant at Mount Rushmore out of my head?

    Moving right along....

    Sepp, I told you back during the men’s World Cup about this problem, and you’ve yet to resolve it. I understand that my nagging you may jeopardize my retirement hopes of being named to the FIFA site selection committee, but nevertheless, I draw your attention again to Law 12 and the one bit in which there is a yellow card if the defending players fail to give the required yards on free kicks.

    You watch the pros, and the EPL refs are still pulling out their can of shaving cream, walking off the 10, marking the line, then doing the cattle roundup yee-haw scene from Red River to get all the defenders back behind that line, instead of just carding them for standing over the ball and preventing the kick’s being taken.

    So, Sepp, how do you expect me to deal with the kids who think it’s OK to stand over the ball, who believe that attackers are compelled to ask for yards and that I am compelled to mark off the yards?

    I’m wondering if my counterparts in youth basketball go through the same thing in school gyms on Saturday mornings. The ref knows travelling when he sees it, blows the whistle, and an incredulous kid goes, "What in the world is wrong with you, ref? I only took five steps — LeBron gets seven!!!!!"


    Meanwhile, what do you do when a parent bellows out, "How is that ever a corner????"

    Well, of course, it goes without saying that you immediately stop the match regardless where the ball is in play, walk over, look up respectfully into the bleachers, and explain that, well, yes, sir, it did look as though the attacking team did kick it out beyond the touch line from three-quarters of the way down the field, but I was close to the ball as I’m required to be, close enough that I could both see and hear the ball touch a defender as it went by, and since it then went all the way down the field and over the touch line, and since the keeper let it go out thinking that it was a goal kick, that the proper call was a corner. Sir.

    Of course I’ll do that.


    It’s occurred to me a few times while doing indoor soccer, I wonder how many marvellous goals would be offside once we go back outdoors in a few months?

    And coaches, you’ll let me know, eh?, if the sounds from my left knee are frightening the children.

    And seguing seamlessly....

    I already know from being told umpteen times that I’m the only referee in Manitoba who won’t let people play with jewellery, won’t let people play outdoors with sunglasses, won’t let adults play without a player’s card — "look at her hand, ref, now pretend you see a player’s card in her hand, and everyone will be happy" — and who reports if a team lacks a roster. It’s because I’m evil.

    Anyway, back to my point, about my allegedly being unique. There’s been a rule in indoor youth soccer for absolutely ages, that when the attacking team is on a kick or throw-in from a dead ball, that the attacking team can’t be inside the six-yard box until the ball is in play. Rule’s been there for years, players are constantly warning each other to stay out of the box, yet it still happens; and twice this indoor season I’ve had coaches tell me that no one has ever called it before.

    Not enough to prove I’m unique?

    How about that I am allegedly the only referee who won’t let a child play goal without shin pads, because he prefers not to wear any?

    I guess I’m truly evil, the Hannibal Lecter or Sheriff of Nottingham or Captain Hook of children’s soccer.

    All together now: Boo. Hiss.

    My initial reaction about UW’s RecPlex, along with the need for more water fountains, is that it’s a lot more running, which is a good thing for decrepit frail seniors, and the ball goes out of play less often than it does at UM, since UW puts three fields into the same space in which UM has four.

    This one afternoon, I’m walking down Spence to the entrance, and a dad going to watch asks me for directions, so we’re walking together through the campus, and we see this young man showing all the outward trappings of being a student, and he’s standing against the wall of Wesley Hall and doing something which would definitely be TMI.

    And he looks up and grins at us, and I point out to him that the buildings are all open and they all have public washrooms, and he says, "I know, I work in one of them today, peace and love, gentlemen."

    Yes, I know, Annette, I could maybe have skipped that one.


    I had one a while back that I’d never seen before, not as a ref or coach or parent, or even watching on TV. I award a free kick just outside the penalty area, kicker asks for yards even though the wall looks fine to me, and as I’m stepping off the yards and the defenders are relaxing while the ball is dead, the ball whistles past my ear and over the net. And I card the player, because there must be something somewhere in Law 12 about scaring the &%**% out of the ref.

    And, second half, identical circumstances but this time the other team having a direct free kick, and despite its never having happened before in my experience and everyone’s having seen the card, I’m halfway through stepping off the yards when the ball rockets past my ear.

    And now for something completely different....

    I’ve been getting some assignments with really young kids, and I’ve made a point of calling stuff that gets parents griping about "Come aaawwwnnn, they’re only nine", or, "Have a do-over".

    And I figure, if I let it go, when will they ever learn how to play properly? And each time I call something, I explain to the kids what happened and what the right way is to do it.

    When child the elder played hockey, they didn’t ignore icing or offsides just because they were nine.

    One of the things I see, especially with girls, is that the ball is bouncing, and they stick their arms up over their heads to supposedly get them out of the way of the ball. It makes it really hard to bring the ball under control, the way they’re twisting around so awkwardly.

    So I showed the girls what they were doing, and said that because their hands weren’t supposed to be up in the air like that, that if the ball touched their hand that I would call hand to ball and give the other team a kick. But if their hands were down by their sides where they were supposed to be, and the ball touched their hand or arm without their making any attempt to touch the ball, that I would call ball to hand, and we’d all just keep going.

    One of my wife’s colleagues told her that I’d been doing her kid’s match, and she was very pleased to see how I explained everything to the kids.

    Praise from a parent? Sorry, my world view has just been shaken, I’ll need a moment or two to regain my composure....

    Of course, I’m constantly learning, and players and coaches can be very helpful about the rules. A few examples in the last year or two....

    It was a high school coach who told me that I can’t give a yellow card in the first minute of the match, after I carded a guy for getting his foot so high on the challenge that he booted the other guy right in the ear.

    I had a player tell me one night that I have to give two warnings before a yellow, so each player would get two freebies.

    Teenage boys, of course, believe that you can do The Red Wedding on the field, as long as somewhere in the carnage you get a toe on the ball.

    Apparently, if a woman approaching my vintage is playing in goal for the first time, she can’t be expected to know that it’s not OK to run outside the penalty area and flatten an opponent.

    And not one on which anyone complained, but stood out for me — I was refereeing women in my demographic, and called a player for getting her boot up high on the challenge, and all her teammates ran over and congratulated her for still being able to get her leg that high.

    I doubt anyone is still with me, but nevertheless...

    Switching briefly to soccer that’s a level or two above that which I normally referee, we have our tickets for the World Cup in June and are really looking forward to it.

    Andreas, we will so totally be cheering for Sweden when they play Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux.

    I know I should be happy that my lads are hovering in the top 10, but I still can’t figure out how Newcastle United is above relegation. I have the same faith that the Magpies won’t do a collapse of mythical proportions as I have for my mighty Maples.

    And as for Euro, is England really allowed to have players who can run fast and make sharp, short passes?

    It’s looking good for The Three Lions, but I recall reading that John Cleese said going into the men’s World Cup earlier this year, he can handle the despair, it’s the hope he can’t handle.


  • Warm and fuzzy feeling not enough for this donor

    12/17/2014 1:56 PM

    I’ve said before that the harmless, positive stories can often create more problems than do the ones mired in controversy and allegations.

    Saturday’s paper featured an interview I did with Alexa Yakubovich, a new Rhodes Scholar who’s graduated from Grant Park High School and the University of Manitoba, and who has already done a master’s at the University of Oxford, where she’ll pursue a PhD.

    Full disclosure, I was an organizer and chaperone at Yakubovich’s safe grad, but she was not among my daughter’s close friends.

    Yakubovich is a brilliant young woman who has immersed herself in the arts, and in raising money for cancer research; she’s conducted academic research into AIDS and the barriers to health care that women in poverty face, into homophobia in schools, into the lack of water on Manitoba reserves.

    The story ran as the weekly In Conversation With, a feature in which we have a short intro about an individual, with whom we then do a Q&A and publish our back and forth as a transcript.

    The focus was on Yakubovich’s achievements, what she’ll do with this gifted potential, how hard she’s worked to get where she is.

    Inevitably, outstanding students win a lot of awards and scholarships along the way. The story was about Yakubovich, the person she is, the person she may become.

    So, after the article ran, I received an email from a community group, a non-profit organization which had awarded Yakubovich financial aid. This community group demanded to know why there was no mention of it and its generosity in the article, had Yakubovich not told me about it, or had I chosen not to publish it?

    I told the group that it could talk to Yakubovich, and it could talk to my editors, but that we don’t discuss the details of our interviews with third parties. I gather she’s getting some grief — Yakubovich is an empowered, highly-educated adult, and she can decide how she wants to handle this.

    But it leads me to ask, why did this particular group choose to provide her financial aid — was it to help out someone who has the potential to make a real difference in the world, or to have the community commend its members for their selfless generosity?

    The story was about an outstanding young woman, and it was not a list of every award she’s won and every group or individual or organization or institution that has provided her with money and assistance and support along the way. That list would probably take up more space than the article I wrote.

    This is not the first time I’ve encountered such behaviour from a tiny minority of philanthropists and community volunteers.

    A while back, I was invited to be a speaker at Crossways in Common, advising inner-city non-profits on how to get media coverage. And as is my wont, I seemingly disgressed and told a story about what we’re likely to publish in certain situations, a story whose eventual point is appropriate in this current context.

    This would be back in Stratford in the mid-70s, when I was in the Perth County bureau for The London Free Press. There was to be a warm-and-fuzzy event, in which a community group had raised money and was presenting new wheelchairs to two disabled young girls.

    I duly attended, taking my prehistoric camera along, and having sat through the ceremony, prepared to take a photograph of the two girls in their new wheelchairs.

    The group was collectively horrified and outraged.

    This was a women’s group which people had to be invited to join, as I recall — whoops, sorry, my bad, that should be a ladies’ group, gentleladies in fact, members of the noblesse oblige gentry and all FOOFs (fine old Ontario families).

    Could I not get it through my thick head that the story — and accompanying photograph — was to be about the group, listing the names of all the members involved in the project, with special attention paid to the president of the group and to the chairs of the committes which had played key roles in doing this deed for which the community-at-large should overwhelmingly display its everlasting and public gratitude?

    To get out of there in one piece, I took a huge group shot, but I also photographed the two girls with their wheelchairs, and that’s what ran in The London Free Press, and the story talked about who these two girls were and how the wheelchairs would help them. And, of course, it hit the fan, and freeps city editor of the day, the late Jim O’Neail, is one of those editors in my career whom I remember fondly.


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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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