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Pay attention, class

There's too much at stake to ignore school board elections

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They'll spend about $1.9 billion in public money this coming school year and decide the quality of public education for close to 180,000 children across Manitoba.

Quick, name your school trustees.

Where do they stand?

We're asking Winnipeg-area school board trustees to answer the following questions. Before election day, we'll post their responses on our website.

Candidates, please send your answers to trusteeanswers@freepress.mb.ca by Oct. 4.

1. Are you an incumbent trustee? Have you served or run at other political levels? Are you running for a political party, and if so, which one?

2. Do you have children enrolled in or graduated from this division? Are/were any of your children home-schooled, or enrolled in an independent school?

3. List five issues which you believe your division’s school board will have to deal with in the next year, and state your position on these issues.

4. List your top five capital priorities for your division and which you would favour your board submitting to the province for funding, in descending order of priority.

5. What percentage increase in annual salary would be appropriate for teachers in your division? Would you reduce, maintain or increase the number of teachers in your division?

6. Should the province lift its moratorium on school closings? Is or are there a school or schools in the division which should be reviewed for closure because of low enrolment? Which one(s)?

7. Would you accept the province’s tax incentive grant and agree to freeze property taxes, even if it meant cutting jobs, services or programs?

8. Would you increase property taxes? If so, what percentage increase is acceptable and for what specific reason(s)?

9. Do you believe in the so-called no-fail, social promotion policy? Should “failed” students repeat a school year? Should students be docked marks for late assignments?

10. Do you believe in standardized tests? For what subjects and grades? What proportion of the final mark should they should be worth?

Even one incumbent?

No, don't Google. Do it off the top of your head.

Can't, can you?

The 311 school trustees across Manitoba are pretty much household names only in their own households.

Far too many will be acclaimed without contesting an election Oct. 27. Far too many people seeing the school board candidates on the ballot won't have a clue who these people are.

But those candidates are the people who will decide which grades go in which schools, how many teachers each school will be assigned, if a school has the staff to have classes of 20 or 32 kids, whether there'll be a full-time phys-ed teacher or an art teacher or a music teacher, whether one school gets French immersion and a world issues course and pre-cal and band, and another doesn't.

Chances are parents will pay more attention than other voters to school board elections. People without kids in the system will gripe about their property taxes, but are less likely to vote.

How many voters will cast genuinely informed votes Oct. 27?

You still have time to pay attention.

If you don't understand how Garden Valley School Division spends $7,644 per student in Winkler, and Southwest Horizon spends $11,019 per child in Melita and Souris, and they're all supposed to be part of an equitable public education system, you've still got time to check out the people who want to run those school divisions.

If you don't understand why a $100,000 home in Seven Oaks pays $229.50 more in school taxes than a similar home in St. James-Assiniboia, yet Seven Oaks spends $581 less per student, you've got homework to do.

School trustees certainly handle enormous budgets, but they also attend every concert, winter pageant, and grad ceremony, they drive 100 kilometres on two-lane rural roads in winter for a committee meeting, they field calls at all hours from irate parents who expect them to settle a classroom dispute.

"Everybody's been to school, everybody's got an opinion," says Carolyn Duhamel, executive director of the Manitoba School Boards Association.

Manitoba is the last province to have real school board taxing power, but even here the provincial government has been chipping away at trustees' authority and autonomy, now leaning heavily on school boards to limit spending and freeze taxes.

"We've seen that across the country. There's been increased centralization with the province," Duhamel said. "The lines aren't as clear as they used to be. The authority of the school boards is already not well understood."

People are confused over who has the authority and money to build a new school, she said as an example.

Increasingly, provincial politicians are getting involved, said Duhamel, citing controversies such as the so-called 50-50 French/English language program at Ecole Provencher in Louis Riel S.D. "A number of parents unhappy with school board decisions have just picked up the phone and called the minister's office."

Duhamel said only 30 per cent of voters have kids in school: "People are more likely to get involved where it impacts them personally."

In rural divisions, there's especially heavy social pressure: "Everyone knows everyone. You are being pushed and pulled in 100 different directions.

"Abusive phone calls, harassment -- that can be quite terrifying," said Duhamel. "I have seen trustees resign."

Issues such as changing the grades a school offers, catchment area changes determining which school a child has the right to attend, busing, renaming schools, turmoil such as the school teams' name at Morden Collegiate, a bus drivers' strike, closing schools prior to the moratorium -- they can all split a community.

"Another challenge is the cost of running for school trustee," she said. "You can't deduct any of that from your income tax. Most of it is personal money."

While donors aren't made public, most people won't donate to a campaign if they can't deduct it from taxes, Duhamel said.

Trustees setting salaries for the division's teachers can be teachers in another division or they may have family members working for the division. Public school trustees can put their own kids in private schools. That's not likely to be in their campaign literature.

Election brochures tend to show the candidate with spouse and kids, they tout the candidate's service club, and minor sports coaching, and church affiliation, with nary a syllable about education issues.

Brochures usually vaguely promise a quality education and fiscal responsibility, invaluable information should another candidate vow to be financially reckless and to deliver crummy schools.

Candidates will surely reveal that "Children are our future" and "Children are our greatest natural resource!"

Some candidates are lumps of clay waiting to be shaped; they say they'll learn on the job after being elected.

Some say they won't be able to take positions until they get inside the system, ignoring the research they could do before running by attending open public meetings of the board, studying the division's website, reading the Public Schools Act or enrolling in the MSBA's candidate workshops. Some candidates say they're running to represent your view -- begging the question, if you and your neighbours disagree on every issue, whom would the candidate represent?

Some are single-issue candidates, and some declare they'll turn the system upside down and inside out.

"Understand what the role is, and what it isn't," urged Duhamel. Each trustee has one vote: "The notion of I'm going to turn this thing on its ear and fix it is problematic. It can create some real turbulence."

It's difficult to defeat an incumbent who hasn't seriously upset people, she said.

And the idea of protecting your home turf, as city councillors often do? Get over that, said Duhamel.

Wards exist only to make elections manageable, she said; trustees must represent the entire division.

"That's difficult for people to get their heads around. If you think you're only there for your ward, you shouldn't be there."

Oct. 27 -- if you're going to vote, make it an informed vote.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

BIG BUCKS:

The public schools' operating budget for the 2010-2011 school year will be about $1.9 billion.

Trustees will spend about $725 million in education property taxes for the 2010-2011 school year.

QUIRKY STUFF:

A Transcona trustee didn't mention to voters in 1998 that she'd been charged with shoplifting just before the election -- she quietly pleaded guilty right after the election and continued to serve on the board.

Can you prove that you live at the address on your nomination papers? In 2002, an unsuccessful perennial council and multiple school boards candidate wouldn't produce any documentation showing his place of residence, and a person living at his registered address in St. James wouldn't confirm the candidate lived there.

A 2002 candidate in Sunrise School Division decided the day after nominations closed that she didn't want to run after all. She spent five weeks running an anti-campaign, beseeching residents not to vote for her. Alas, she won anyway, immediately quit, and ratepayers had to ante up for a byelection.

Each ward of Winnipeg School Division has more than 43,000 voters. Anthony Ramos was elected and has had a term as chair of the $330-million annual budget division with the approval of only 4,785 voters.

Bob Fraser chairs the River East Transcona school board and the province's second-largest division after receiving a mere 1,689 votes in 2006, the fewest attained by any successful trustee candidate in Winnipeg. A fellow name of Katz got 104,379 to win his job at city hall.

A few weeks after the 2002 election, trustees in Winnipeg and River East Transcona, the province's two largest divisions, suddenly discovered they'd been without an increase in stipends for way too long, and awarded themselves increases of more than 30 per cent.

YOU WANT ISSUES, WE'VE GOT ISSUES:

Teachers' contracts are the elephant in the room.

In an extraordinary situation, teachers in 36 of 37 school divisions start classes the day after Labour Day without a contract.

Teachers are paid far beyond the inflation rate, all of them in 2009-10 getting a base raise of three per cent, most also getting cash up to $550 -- overall raises as high as 4.82 per cent -- plus, increments for seniority for teachers with less than a decade on the job on top of the base raises.

The province is leaning on school boards to freeze taxes, but how do you control spending, when wages and benefits are 85 per cent of a budget and teachers are by far the largest and highest-paid employee group -- without either employing fewer people or negotiating a contract with little or no raise?

The 2008 moratorium on closing small schools may save some incumbents a lot of grief from angry parents -- there were at least 13 schools that would have closed by now without the moratorium -- but dozens of schools with dwindling enrolment aren't going away.

Remember amalgamation?

Some divisions were inexplicably left alone in 2002 when the NDP imposed amalgamation across Manitoba, even though they met the criteria: fewer than 2,000 students; low assessment base; more affluent neighbours.

McCreary-based Turtle River S.D. at 787 students is smaller than most urban high schools. Turtle Mountain in Killarney and Boissevain has 1,027 students, Gladstone-area Pine Creek has 1,182, Eriksdale-based Lakeshore has 1,307.

And Winnipeg is pretty lonely among major Canadian cities in having all or portions of seven school boards within the city limits -- Edmonton, Calgary, and even Toronto manage to cope with only one public school board apiece.

Since the province won't take comprehensive action on the so-called no-fail and social promotion non-policy policies, and won't impose rules for hot-button issues such as students not being docked marks for turning in assignments late, should trustees micromanage by setting standards within their divisions' schools?

When will we hit the limit on how much of the provincial government's job public schools are supposed to perform?

Public schools have to deal with learning disorders, behavioural problems, inactive kids, poor nutrition, children who can't speak English or French, single parents' inadequate housing and feeding breakfast to hungry kids -- priorities that provincial grants don't come close to covering -- all while under orders to control spending.

Is property value the best way to decide the quality of education that each public school student receives? Should divisions with factories, enormous malls and office towers pocket every penny of business education tax?

Should divisions such as Pembina Trails and St. James-Assiniboia be able to hold down taxes because their assessment base per student is way above the provincial average?

Should Winnipeg be able to offer programming of which other divisions can only dream, because it is the only division in which business makes up more than half of the assessment base?

Can we call a public education system equitable when Seven Oaks trustees are excoriated for having the highest property taxes in the city, yet spend far less per student than other divisions, because of the serendipity of where businesses are located?

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2010 H14

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