Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • A student asks for my help

    04/14/2014 3:45 PM

    I’ve been having an extended correspondence with a high school student from Steinbach today.

    And before we go any further, I’ll emphasize that I really am willing to help students. Just as long as the teacher is cool with it.

    I remember the email I received a few years back from a student at Windsor Park Collegiate, who asked me to explain why (his words, not mine) the high school science that they teach in Manitoba is so bad, and when you answer, please make it at least 3,000 words. And I responded by asking the student if he’d like me to include footnotes and an annotated bibliography,

    Anyway, on to today’s student.

    The first email I received consisted of just the one sentence: "Why do you think the MHSAA resist giving the Pasternak what they wanted?"

    That was it.

    A few back and forths later, I had ferretted out that my correspondent is a senior high student at Steinbach Regional, and that this is a course assignment that the teacher gave the class. The student asked for a day of my time to interview me, and we bargained it down to two hours, a date to be determined subject to conditions.

    But I had to ask in three emails before the student told me that, no, he has not read any of the stories and blogs I wrote back in 2006 when the Pasternak twin sisters challenged the Manitoba High Schools Athletics Association in a landmark human rights hearing to be allowed to try out for the boys’ hockey team at West Kildonan Collegiate. Nor had he read anyone else’s coverage. All he knew was what the teacher assigned the class.

    I urged very strongly that the student find and read what I wrote eight years ago, before we discuss his using me as an interview subject. I made a strong case that I would be OK with being part of his research, subject to the teacher’s approval, but I would not do the research for him. I wanted to see evidence he’d done his homework, starting with his knowing who the Pasternaks were and what it was all about.

    I told the student that I want his teacher to let me know if he/she would consider his interviewing me to be initiative on the student’s part, or a shortcut to doing the legwork that he/she expected the student to do.

    And that’s where it was left.

    And on the subject of helping students, I received an email last Thursday from a graduate student at U of M asking for my help in finding data on family incomes for each school division in Manitoba. I replied in some detail about such specific data not being compiled, largely because of privacy legislation — StatsCan can tell you the average incomes in a neighbourhood, but that doesn’t address where kids in that neighbourhood go to school, or separate the public/private/home-schooled families from the general local population as a distinct income group. The only way to compile such detailed data would be to allow schools the right to ask parents their incomes, and that’s not going to happen. You can extrapolate, you can generalize, you can try to convert the StatsCan numbers into division-by-division information, but you won’t get the nitty-gritty the graduate student sought. But I made some suggestions.

    Some people would have acknowledged my response, however inadequate, with a simple thanks. Some people.


  • No such thing as school enrolment TMI

    04/3/2014 1:16 PM

    You may have seen my story on provincial enrolment and the significant ongoing increase in home schooling a few days ago, and thirsted for more information.

    Don’t you always?

    You can read that story here.

    Meanwhile, I’d dug through the annual provincial enrolment report, and pulled out all sorts of oodles of nifty stats.

    Alas, space was a consideration.

    Despair not, for here you can see which forms of education grew or dropped in students, which divisions gained the most students and which lost the most; you’ll learn that the biggest schools tended to remain the biggest, but most dropped in enrolment — what had seemed an inexorable growth to 2,000 students for Sisler and Maples is no longer an immediate-future bet.

    And there are the small city schools, some of which would have been closed by now were it not for the province’s 2008 moratorium on closing schools.

    As Jackie Gleason said back in my childhood, And away we go....

    Students in each type of school available in Manitoba in 2013-2014 (gain or loss of students, percentage gains or losses over 2012-2013)

    All forms of education 199,532 (plus 303, plus 0.2 per cent)

    Public schools 181,457 (minus 277, minus 0.2 per cent)

    Funded independent schools 13,926 (plus 32, plus 0.2 per cent)

    Non-funded independent schools 1,334 (plus 132, plus 11 per cent)

    Home schooling 2,815 (plus 416, plus 17.3 per cent)

    Divisions gaining students over 2012-2013

    Seine River 233

    Frontier 151

    Brandon 126

    Seven Oaks 118

    Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine 107

    Divisions losing students over 2012-2013

    River East Transcona 255

    Winnipeg 194

    Lord Selkirk 136

    Red River Valley 61

    Kelsey, Sunrise 57

    Largest schools in Manitoba (gain or loss over 2012-2013)

    Sisler 1,870 (-14)

    Maples 1,680 (-4)

    Garden City 1,397 (-7)

    Steinbach Regional 1,379 (-15)

    Kelvin 1,336 (-22)

    Kildonan East 1,301 (+17)

    Tec Voc 1,297 (+53)

    Sturgeon Heights 1,262 (-64)

    Glenlawn 1,224 (+8)

    Helen Betty Osborne 1,210 (+46)

    Lord Selkirk 1,208 (-50)

    Vincent Massey (Wpg) 1,205 (-42)

    Grant Park 1,181 (-25)

    Crocus Plains 1,174 (-43)

    Daniel MacIntyre 1,169 (-31)

    Dakota 1129 (-51)

    Fort Richmond 1,076 (+22)

    Stanley Knowles 1,061 (+45)

    Portage 1,055 (-33)

    Miles Macdonell 1,039 (-115)

    St. John’s 1,016 (-50)

    Smallest schools in Winnipeg (gain or loss over 2012-2013)

    Chapman 73 (+1)

    Sherwood 94 (-12)

    Westgrove 101 (-28)

    Dr. D. W. Penner 106 (-7)

    Fort Rouge 107 (-32)

    Lord Wolseley 124 (-3)

    Parc la Salle 125 (+4)

    Tuxedo Park 131 (+8)

    Collicutt 131 (zero)

    Provencher 132 (-19)

    Ralph Maybank 134 (+8)

    Polson 137 (+4)

    Marion 140 (+7)

    Queenston 141 (-3)

    Ness 143 (-28)

    Glenelm 143 (-8)

    Glenwood 145 (-22)

    Source: compiled by The Free Press from provincial enrolment report data. Full report available here.

    A few selected highlights from the enrolment report:

    • Reynolds Elementary School in Prawda is the smallest public school not on a Hutterite colony or not in a remote northern community, with seven students.
    • Archwood, La Barriere Crossing, and Governor Semple schools — all recently among the city’s smallest — have grown substantially in the last two or three years.
    • Garden Valley Collegiate in Winkler disappeared from the charts with the opening of Northlands Parkway Collegiate, the first time in recent memory that a community has gone from one high school to two.
    • Nursery to Grade 8 Stanley Knowles School is Manitoba’s largest school with elementary grades.
    • Ness Middle School is the only small-enrolment school in the city that is not elementary.
    • Linden Christian School remains the province’s largest independent school at 879 students, gaining three students over the year before.
    • Greenland School in Ste. Anne is the largest non-funded independent school at 85 kids.
    • Nine individual grades have 400 or more students, including all three grades from 10 to 12 at Steinbach Regional Secondary School.
    • Four schools have Grade 12 cohorts of 500-plus: Maples 590, Sisler 561, Winnipeg Adult Education Centre 549, Daniel McIntyre 515.


  • Will those fields ever be clear and dry?

    03/28/2014 3:50 PM

    It’s not all that often it gets scary on a soccer field.

    All these years and I’ve only seen a couple of people carried off for medical attention, only one ambulance, a couple of serious-looking knee injuries when people fell down on a plant-and-turn without contact from another player.

    There was the incident a couple of summers ago when someone’s grandmother watching an adjacent game decided the best route to the washroom was walking with a cane directly through 22 very large and fast 15-year-olds. I was going downfield with the striker carrying the ball when she suddenly had her eyes pretty near pop out of her head, and threw on the brakes; I turned, gasped, whistled, and everyone froze as the spectator ambled through our match.

    So a while back I’m about to whistle in play for the second-half kickoff when I see a baby on the sideline. Like, literally on the sideline, a tiny toddler who I bet had not been walking more than a few weeks was standing on the line, mom sitting in the stands a few feet away. And I have to go over and point out to the mother the obvious dangers from the ball and the players, and ask her to remove the baby from the field.

    So she puts the baby in a snuggly, and sits in the first row of the bleachers, maybe three feet away from the play.

    The adults who are sitting there texting, they’re pretty much on their own. If they can’t figure out that burying your face in your phone isn’t an invitation to get a ball drilled into your head or have two thundering bodies collide and crash into your lap...

    But speaking as a father, I would never have put our kids in that situation when they were tiny.


    An adult soccer player I know proposed an idea one day after yet another bout of complaining to me about referees: she thinks players should be able to give referees a yellow card based on their performance.

    In this case, she’d probably show the yellow card to the ref while he/she was getting out of his/her car prior to the match, but, still...

    Among things I’d never seen on a soccer field that happened recently... back in the day when I was coaching, we sometimes would go for goal on the kickoff in indoor soccer, but it never worked. I saw it recently, player kicking off went for goal, carried right over the keeper, astounding everyone in the place.

    Seguing smoothly...

    No, coach, I am not eating Rice Krispies on the pitch during the match. That’s just my knee.

    And moving along...

    Player comes off after the match, walking with her mom, says to me, "Can I borrow a dollar? I’ll pay you back, promise."

    And the mom laughs, and I say to her, "Only a dollar?" Had her child said, "May I borrow", I might have coughed up a loonie on grammatical principle.

    And as my mind wanders...

    To the father who called me a jerk: sir, your child is playing at a skilled, competitive level, and three seasons in should know how to make a throw-in. Do you think that when you go to a tournament in Minneapolis, they’ll have do-overs if a player jumps in the air with both feet, or twists herself into a pretzel throwing the ball in a direction directly opposite to the way she’s facing?


    I keep running into people in the education system who are involved in soccer. There’s one principal who plays whom I see occasionally, and just this month I interviewed a student and a mother who recognized me from doing their matches. Despite that, they still talked to me nicely. I interviewed an educator — no hints, the story hasn’t run yet, don’t want to hand it to other media — who said he reads my blog and remembers me doing some of his son’s matches. Now that his son is getting beyond youth age, the dad is thinking that gosh, yes, maybe he would like to try being a referee. He says he knows what he’s getting himself into.

    Seguing again...

    It’s (theoretically) only a few weeks until outdoor season, and the municipal election is not until October, but it’s never too early for candidates — and especially incumbents, who have the power to act now — to promise to have clean toilets at every outdoor soccer pitch. Biffies are fine, as long as they’re clean, and stable in a heavy wind, and don’t turn into saunas in the sun.

    And in case the sun has come down before you’ve left the park, and a vampire comes at you, you can always push the port-a-pottie over and crush the vampire... biffy the vampire slayer...

    But at my age, I can’t keep my attention on one topic for very long...

    I was at UW back in the day when a horde of dignitaries turned the sod for the new indoor complex, and I was surprised when told that they wouldn’t be encroaching onto the roadway of either or both of Spence and Young streets, even though they said the indoor surface could open up into a full-sized field; the site just didn’t look that big to me. And now that construction is coming along nicely — given, of course, that all construction projects are on time and on budget — I can see that they were right, that it is quite a big place.

    If the snow ever melts...

    Guess I’d better get my soccer bag ready for outdoor season. Sugarfudgeheckdarn, this bag was really, really heavy to lug around all winter, I’m amazed my shoulders still work — how much can a whistle and a pair of cleats weigh?

    Sifting through... oh, OK, here’s a water bottle, a really big water bottle, a really big full water bottle. I guess that weighs a gram or two. Yeah, OK, so they have water fountains at UM, but, you know, maybe the pipes might freeze there... oh, here’s a second water bottle, again really big and again full. Guess those grams are adding up... and this level-60 sun block, that’s big too, and that’s full, must have thought back in October that you never know when ultraviolet rays will be vicious out in the parking lot at 7:20 a.m. arriving for those Saturday and Sunday matches... can’t be much else in here — oh, right, here’s this ginormous can of bug spray, and it’s full too. Don’t get sarcastic with me, you never know when the bugs will mutate and morph and adapt to winter, and hatch up inside the complex...


    The Chief Peguis Trail extension happened long after I left the city hall bureau, but I gotta say it’s great for getting to soccer pitches in the northeast from my office, be it outdoor fields in Transcona or indoor fields at Gateway and Skylight, or even the one night I went out to Tyndall.

    Zip across Mountain to Main, and then take the extension to Gateway or Lagimodiere in three or four minutes.


  • For two readers, for the umpteenth time...

    03/19/2014 12:18 PM

    I received two snippy emails on my coverage of school boards budgets.

    Well, OK, a lot more than two complaints, but these two were signed.

    One thanked The National Post for running a Frontier Centre report on public school costs increasing at a faster pace than enrolment, noting that he sure hadn’t seen that report in the Free Press.

    The second found it funny that I make no mention of school trustees allegedly performing a tax grab under the confusion of reassessment.


    Each year I read the FRAME (Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education) report when it comes out in the fall, and I analyze it for both the newspaper and at far greater and more rambling length here in my blog.

    And as enrolment has stagnated the last few years — up a few kids, down a few kids, statistically insignificant overall — I’ve pointed out that the costs of running the $2.1-billion public education system are going up seemingly inexorably each year by a ballpark figure of $75 million, maybe 3.5 to 4.2 per cent. Most of that is higher salaries and benefits combined with more people being on the payroll.

    Each year, reader, each year.

    As for the second, I’ve written about the assessed values of properties being the driving force behind the entire public school financing system — though taxes are the visible tip of the iceberg — about assessment’s creating inequities in what is purportedly an equitable public education system.

    And I’ve explained umpteen times how to sleuth out if there’s been a tax grab.

    One more time.

    A mill rate is set by taking the assessment base and dividing it into the amount of money that school trustees want to raise through education property taxes, then doing a whole bunch of arithmetic. The result will be two digits, usually in the teens — occasionaly a single digit or in the 20s — followed by at least three decimal places.

    Values usually go up during a reassessment, so now it’s a far bigger number being divided into the amount of money raised through taxes. Thus, mill rates usually go down after a reassessment.

    That’s where trustees could pull off a tax grab, by raising far more money than usual in taxes, knowing most people couldn’t figure out what had happened.

    So, the key is to look at the amount of money raised through the special levy year to year.

    If it’s up 3.6 per cent, then the school board is not trying a sneaky tax grab. If it’s up 9.2 per cent, you have a gotcha moment.

    A few years ago, after reassessment, Winnipeg school board claimed to have frozen taxes when the mill rate was the same as the year before. However, the amount collected through the special levy rose something like 7.7 per cent, so I reported a huge tax increase, which got the trustees really miffed.

    Another year, another reassessment, St. James-Assiniboia compared the taxes paid by $100,000 homes year-to-year, and said it had kept taxes to about a $2 increase on that home, and most media reported that.

    I reported a record tax jump for the division, something north of 15 per cent.

    That’s because a $100,000 house before and after reassessment is not the same house; that $100,000 house last year will be a $119,000 house, or an $111,000 house.

    All sorts of things affect how your tax bill this year will compare to last year, in percentage changes.

    More taxpayers may have joined the tax rolls to share the burden, which generally will lower your poential increase — IKEA, for instance, or new homes in Amber Trails or Sage Creek paying property taxes for the first time.

    Let’s say the average change in assessed value of homes in your division is an increase of $17,000. If your home went up $24,500, you’ll be paying a greater share than you did the year before, and the percentage that your taxes go up will be greater than the average; If your home went up $8,200 in assessed value, then the reverse happens, and you’ll pay a smaller share. On a typical tax bill with an average change of $50, you might be paying $60 or $40.

    How different categories of properties change will also affect what you pay. If commercial reassesment went up seven per cent, while homes went up 19 per cent, more of the burden will be shared by homeowners.

    And next week, someone who hasn’t read this blog will complain that I’m keeping this information hidden from befuddled taxpayers.



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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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