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'Pitcher' slides a fast one

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It should have been a piece of cake. Greg Selinger, finance minister for a decade and premier for the last two years, sat down for a chat with the Free Press editorial board about NDP promises and provincial finances in his first campaign as leader of the party.

He was fine as long as it related to the recall of facts, figures and programs.

Before we got down to the short strokes of costs and benefits, though, Selinger was tossed a softball about how the NDP's fortunes looked in some ridings the other parties are targeting. The Liberals are feeling chuffed in some constituencies in the city's northwestern flank, and the Tories are hopeful, beyond southeast Winnipeg ridings, that recent civic and federal election results in northeast Winnipeg indicate voter shifts his way.

But Selinger looked like he was drawing a blank. Either dumbfounded or simply unwilling to respond. An awkward silence descended.

Rather weird for arguably the most experienced leader on the campaign trail; queries about fortunes at the riding level -- the "out there" part of the classic "how's it going out there" question -- are standard campaign stuff.

Eventually, he offered that Tyndall Park is shaping up to be competitive. None of the "it's sounding really good at the door steps" or "we're confident; people are confident about the economy, generally happy with the way the government has handled the challenges of the last couple years."

It was so uncharacteristic -- Selinger doesn't get caught flat-footed often.

The man who personally balanced the books (until, as premier, he didn't) knows the public accounts upside and down. He has impressive recall of facts that paint Manitoba's economic profile. He knows, for example, how much "room" there is to pad the spending laid out by the NDP less than six months ago, where the cash can be found for the party's $1-billion (or so) plan for additional spending and tax breaks. That was most of the conversation.

The steely grasp on detail weakened when he was asked to drill down on the NDP pledge to cap the size of classes in the early-years grades, K to Grade 3, which will cost, Selinger said, $20 million by the fifth year in additional teachers, $85 million to expand schools.

That's for starts. Adding teachers compounds costs. This, while provincial enrollment falls.

Holding down class size in the early grades is intuitively right. I saw a first-year kindergarten teacher juggle 29, first-year French immersion kids of wildly varying competencies. The following year, their Grade 1 teacher was doing double time on the alphabet as she struggled to launch them as readers. A big chunk of the class landed in reading recovery, an intensive, expensive way to get kids to grade level.

But fixing a cap can put a school board into the glue fast. Principals now have the flexibility to add a teacher's assistant when the numbers rise. Taking that latitude away corners them into higher spending.

Average class-size calculations that school boards produce factor in all positions filled by teachers -- resource positions for math and language arts, for example. The NDP promise to restrict class size eliminates averaging. Further, how do you spread the cash and the hiring equitably about the schools when some have deliberately decided to let the class size rise to invest in other programs?

What happens when a school has 29 kids in Grade 1 -- split them into classes of 15 and 14? Now you're talking expensive.

Selinger had none of these details. He speculated that perhaps students can be shifted among schools to level class sizes. I'm thinking that's a non-starter with parents, who tend to target a specific program or a school.

All of this will be worked out in consultations with teachers, school trustees and parents, he pledged.

I'll wait for Oct. 4 for a better sense of why Selinger had little to say about NDP fortunes in certain ridings. I can say, though, that $20 million to cap class sizes grossly underestimates cost. He was smart to skirt the details.

In departing, Selinger was asked to describe the difference in being finance minister and premier. He mustered a baseball analogy -- he used to play catcher; now he is pitcher. Yes, indeed. Having fumbled a soft one on the ridings, he threw a masterful curve to hire teachers, playing to the crowd in the NDP's bleachers.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2011 A15

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