Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • How come terrific read never gets nominated for a Giller?

    5:42 PM

    I thought I had quite the story when I read this year’s FRAME report for the first go-through.

    This, it goes without saying, would be the Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education report on gazillions of numbers for all 37 school divisions in umpteen categories. It’s $2,163,429,066 to run the public school system this year.

    A crackerjack read, indeed, and more’s the pity that Colin Craig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and I are probably the only people outside the education system who get to read it on company time.

    Here’s my story from the dead trees edition:

    Anyway, it jumped off the page at me that there were 39 fewer teachers on the payroll this year. That was a net drop — when you consider that about 70 teachers got a job because of the provincial decision to cap K-3 classes at 20 kids by 2017, it meant that 109 teaching positions had been dropped.

    Alas, I always have to go and check things out.

    Sugarfudgeheckdarn, the ubiquitous aide to Education Minister Peter Bjornson 2.0 told me that FRAME this year no longer counts adult learning centre teachers as classroom teachers, and if you do the apples and apples thing, then there are 100.8 more full-time equivalent teachers on the public payroll than the year before.

    OK, we can roll with that.

    It was still a good story: enrolment down 691.4 full-time equivalent students, more than 100 additional teachers, spending up 3.04 per cent — sharp-eyed readers can jump in here and remind us what the level of inflation is — and residential education property taxes up 4.76 per cent. Fewer children to educate, more employees teaching them, costs rise. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but explanations are in order from those doing the spending and hiring.

    Taking a mythical house assessed at a value of $200,000 with an average mill rate, that’s $59.55 more on a typical property tax bill. Big Editor (not his real name) likes it when I put in that kind of stuff.

    So, when you sift through the FRAME report, keep that in mind when you have this year’s FRAME on half your screen and last year’s on the other half of your screen.

    The enormous jump in federal funding also jumped off the page at me. I assumed more First Nations had partnered with, or contracted with, public school divisions. Not so, said aide to Bjornson 2.0, nothing to do with First Nations, it’s a bookkeeping change in which the feds no longer funnel English as an Additional Language through the province, now the cash goes directly from Ottawa to the school divisions (image of stagecoach with Wells Fargo on the side, Gabby Hayes riding shotgun, pulling up in front of 1577 Wall Street).

    You also can’t compare mill rates.

    As everyone undoubtedly knows, every property in Manitoba gets reassessed every two years, producing an apple and oranges thing. Mill rates reflect taking the amount of money you want to collect through property taxes, divising by the assessment base, and fiddling with the decimal point. The assessed values go way up, new properties join the roll, mill rates tend to drop.

    What I do in those reassessment years is take the special levy on page 49, compare it to the year before, do the percentages calculation that they learned me to do real good on paper back in the 1950s, and see how much more money the trustees collected through taxes. That gives you a ballpark figure on how much taxes increased.


  • And with a few keystrokes, repugnant misogyny

    11/19/2014 12:27 PM

    Am I the only one who noticed the tweet last week apparently from someone who ran unsuccessfully in the Oct. 22 school board elections?

    I made a copy, and here it is. The redaction of one word is mine:

    "When your prof comes into class shaking her head with a b**** face on you know you’re gonna have a bad time"

    I immediately replied to the tweet, asking him if he had the slightest idea of how offensive and inappropriate that was, and asking if that is the attitude he would have brought to the board table.

    I haven’t found any sign of a reply from him, but soon after, the tweet disappeared.

    Other than the copy and paste I did from Twitter to my email, I can’t prove that his tweet ever existed, though I’d be happy to hear from anyone who knows differently.

    And I hesitate slightly, because even though it appears to be the Twitter account of the person whom I followed when he ran for school board, there were several fake Twitter accounts during the election campaign purporting to be the personal accounts of mayoral and council candidates, and there are several fake Greg Selinger/NDP accounts flying around that I see when people RT them, so it is possible that someone else is faking this.

    Because, why would any educated, empowered person running for public office believe that posting a message of repugnant misogyny is acceptable, and how could any empowered, educated person running for public office not recognize that his message is, in fact, repugnant misogyny?


  • Babinsky remains a rebellion of one

    11/7/2014 4:04 PM

    Winnipeg School Division trustee Mike Babinsky was quick to spot the irony in the board’s meeting with Education Minister Peter Bjornson Thursday about transparency — meeting behind closed doors.

    Babinsky, having been frozen out once again in his sixth term from any significant chair appointments, called me, as he is wont to do. And as he is also wont to do, Babinsky let the rest of the board know that he’ll be doing things his way, just as he’s followed a different drummer since he first took office last century.

    Babinsky said that former education minister James Allum had asked before the Oct. 22 municipal election that the newly-elected board meet to talk about transparency, the lack of which had troubled the minister. However, after Monday’s cabinet shuffle, Selinger loyalist Allum became justice minister, and Selinger loyalist Bjornson was back for a second go-round as education minister.

    Anyway, Babinsky, again as is his wont, said that Bjornson 2.0 just swung by for a meet and greet. Transparency, said Babinsky, may just be a smokescreen by the rest of the school board, which may give you some indication of why he does not play well with others around the board table.

    Babinsky had been hoping that the meeting would discuss a letter he sent to Allum some time back, and which he shared in the pages of our paper, alleging secret salary deals with school bus drivers, and alleging that the previous board had inappropriately wiped out any public paper trail of his demand that the trustees take disciplinary action against anyone responsible for leaving kids waiting too long last winter at school bus stops in frigid conditions.

    He raised that in Thursday’s session. "Multiple trustees asked, ‘What letter?’," said Babinsky. The administration had not acceded to his wishes to place his letter on the agenda, said Babinsky, whom you can consider as a rebel defying tyranny, or as someone who also doesn’t play well with the employees. By the way, though Babinsky talked at length about what the board secretary had done and not done, he said her most senior bosses were the ones against whom he has a gripe.

    Babinsky said he was accused of hijacking the meeting, and that 20 minutes of bickering ensued.


    Board chair Mark Wasyliw said Friday that Babinsky might get his way on some things and might have some board members ready to support him and work with him if he stopped picking fights long enough to work with the rest of the board.

    "Mike tried to hijack the meeting — we only get an hour with the minister," said Wasyliw. "His view is distorted — he wanted to tell on the principal to the administration. He somehow seems to want the minister to do something. We’re trying to tell Mike it’s a new board with no preconceived notions of how things happen.

    "He’s chasing headlines, he doesn’t seem to be in search of a solution. He’s too busy throwing rotten eggs at people, to get anything done," Wasyliw said.

    Gosh, Mark, don’t be so subtle, tell us what you really think about Babinsky’s getting on everyone’s nerves.

    Babinsky has been like this since day one, when he was first elected in 1995. Most school boards would look to someone with that type of experience to be a leader, especially when six of nine trustees are rookies. But once again, he’s not the board chair, he’s not chairing finance, or policy/program, or buildings and transportation, he’s frozen out of any significant responsibility, in favour of raw rookies who seem prepared to work collegially and non-confrontationally with the rest of the board.

    Remember, this is the board that took office just this Monday, and that this was all behind closed doors.

    Wasyliw said that the new board is serious about opening up its meetings and business to the public.

    "School trustees are cut off from the public. If it weren’t for you and CBC radio, there’s no coverage of school boards in Manitoba," Wasyliw said. "There’s a bit of a culture of secrecy at WSD, partly as a reaction to Mike. The administration doesn’t want to be putting out fires every day."

    Meanwhile, rookie trustee Lisa Naylor emailed everyone on the board Friday to warn against believing what they read in the newspaper — the first shot of the new board against me and probably just the first in a long series of shots — and to urge everyone to make nice while finding the balance between openness and the necessity for some privacy at times.

    That Naylor only criticized print leaves one to wonder, does she recognize our dominant relevance, does Naylor believe newspapers are as vital today as we were in 1914 or 1814, or is she suggesting that one should mistrust us while believing everything else in the media, be it TV, radio, and on-line?

    Anyway, here’s what Naylor had to say:

    "I’m sure we are all concerned with the troubling accusations within the (Babinsky) email and the negative media coverage. I would like to remind the Board that newspaper articles, while interesting and having the potential to influence members of our community, are not fact and do not necessarily represent a balanced, objective view of events.

    "As for Mr. Babinsky’s concerns about what does or doesn’t happen in camera — I hope that we can address these issues individually as we move forward as a new Board. I believe that many members of the current Board are committed to increasing transparency while also fulfilling our legal responsibilities under FIPPA and within the context of bargaining agreements etc. I expect that we will find ways to do this without compromising important negotiations or personal privacy of employees or students of the division.

    "Regarding the transportation issues within the division, it may also be helpful for everyone to review the Information Bulletins that were released on June 18 and Sept 23 of this year.," wrote Naylor.

    No, I wasn’t on the mailing list and I won’t say how I got it.

    Of course, I contacted Naylor, who emailed back: "At this point I am interested in establishing professional and collegial working relationships with the other trustees and administration, learning all I can about governance at this level and being effective in my role."

    Can I call time out long enough to remind everyone that this is all about providing the best education possible to 34,000 or so students?

    OK, play is back in....

    Any fears that the election would make WSD any less interesting appear completely, as long as they do it all in public...


  • Why not all bullying allegations lead to stories, and other stuff

    11/5/2014 4:06 PM


    People call up every two or three weeks with allegations that their child or children are being bullied at school, and no one will do anything about it.

    You don’t read about many of those in the paper — a few, once in a while, but not many of them.

    I’ve learned over the years that it’s best for everyone to take a deep breath and think it over, before we all invest our time in pursuing the situation, first and foremost the family that’s calling.

    I tell people that the whole family has to talk it over, and be sure everyone — parents, the victim, siblings — are all prepared to sit down and talk to me, and understand the potential for seeing their names and photos and stories in the paper. They need to supply me with any written documentation they have, along with the names of other people who can offer corroboration. They also need to understand that there may be people who will tell a different version of what’s happened.

    I learned the hard way that the more urgently some people want their stories told — telling me it can’t wait, that I must meet them that night or on my day off — the more likely it is that they won’t show up or that I will never hear from them again. Some people offer to supply corroboration from others, which is not forthcoming. Sometimes I hear from one parent, who hadn’t talked to the other parent and/or the bullied child before calling me, and there isn’t consent within the family to go forward. Some people can’t accept that another perspective might appear in the story.

    You may recall a story a while back that I broke and which got huge play. A mother called to say her son was being bullied, the school and division would do nothing to help, so she sent her child off to martial arts school and gave him a green light to use those skills on his bullies.

    You may also wonder why I never followed up the story. The martial arts school threatened to sue us, though that would not deter a follow-up. It was the boy’s mother, who was outraged when she read it in the paper, and read and heard its being picked up on other media. The mother had made an assumption in coming to us that she would completely control the process, that she would get to read the story and approve it before publication, and that she would be the one who would ultimately decide if we could publish it. She was furious when, after my talking to her and to everyone else involved who would talk to me, that we published the story.


    And this process has nothing to do with doubting people’s stories or denigrating the effects of bullying, though I recognize I’m open to such charges. It’s also about very serious repercussions for those at whom the finger is pointed, whether it be bullying students or professionals in the education system accused of being negligent, uncaring, incompetent. It’s about being able to say that what we publish is true.

    The latest one was a mother who says her daughter is being bullied at a city high school, and that the school and division will do nothing about it. She said an older daughter had been similarly bullied, and, similarly, nothing was done about it while she was in the school system. The mother made it clear that she was using me as a threat to get the division to accede to her wishes, and further made it clear that she intended to use her family’s relationship with a school trustee as a threat against the senior administration.

    I told her to have the family talk it over on the weekend, and I would phone back Monday. I did, got voice mail, left a message, and have heard nothing further from her.


    You may have read my story that today is the 100th anniversary of The Manitoban, the student newspaper at U of M.

    We only heard about it through a news release well into yesterday morning, from someone who apparently believes we sit around all day with nothing to do, waiting for the opportunity to spring into action. A little more notice would help for stories such as these, especially when so much other breaking news is happening.


    Anyway, astute readers may wonder why the story was told through UM archivist Shelley Sweeney and a former student editor, Ryan Harby, with nary a syllable from current newspaper staff. The news release did not offer us any contacts at The Manitoban, and my email to the editor brought no response Tuesday. Just after noon today, I heard back from The Manitoban, offering co-operation, and suggesting we send a photographer down around 5 p.m.

    Changing topics...

    I was on the path on Wellington Crescent, runner goes by — sunglasses, baseball cap pulled down over his eyes — who remarks over his shoulder: "Nice article about Stephanie."

    Sir, I have no idea who you were, nor do I know if you were being scornful or paying me a compliment.

    And seguing somewhat awkwardly....

    My most recent blog recounted my adventures with the city, and the user fees it charges for large-item waste pickup. The city insisted it would charge us a user fee for items which scrap metal collectors had taken almost as soon as we put the stuff out, but was also refusing to pick up an abandoned suitcase which someone had dumped in the back lane — on both counts, because I’d failed to give two business days’ notice of changes in the items to be picked up.

    Anyway, our collection day was Monday. Monday night, the mattress, armchair, and two plywood tables, and the infamous suitcase were still behind our house.

    Tuesday came and went, and everything was still sitting there. So late Tuesday night, I emailed the city, asking what was happening. I also pointed out that two business days having passed, I expected that we would no longer be charged fees for the metal items which had walked away by themselves and which the city crew would not be picking up, and I further pointed out that with two business days having passed, I expected the city would now pick up the suitcase which some unknown citizen had chosen to dump and make my problem and my neighbour’s problem.

    Can you guess what’s coming next?

    No, said the city. The key date remained our collection day, which was Monday, and I had still failed to give two business days’ notice of any changes. That the city had failed to do its job Monday, and had failed to do its job Tuesday, that was totally irrelevant. We would still be charged a fee for the items the city would not be picking up, and as for the suitcase, we would still need to make another appointment for pickup, and we would then be charged a fee for that suitcase even though it had been dumped in the public portion of the back lane.

    Early this morning, the truck and crew arrived and took the mattress and armchair and other stuff. They didn’t have to take the metal items which were no longer there but for which the city will bill us. (Pause for suspense) I don’t want to get that crew in trouble, and since I did not witness the pickup, I will say only that the abandoned suitcase was there before the crew showed up, and is no longer there.

    Brian, you’re OK with that kind of a policy being on the books? You think that’s the way to work for citizens?

    Switching back to education...

    Red River College is searching for a vice-president of finance and administration. RRC says this vacancy is because of a planned retirement.


    I’ll let you know what I think of Bjornson 2.0 after the dust settles and I talk to him for the first time this time around. I understand that you are loathe to wait, and will be beyond distraught before I address the topic, but that's the way it is.



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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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