The Winnipeg School Division board is ignoring "11th-hour" advice from the province to postpone a byelection to save taxpayers money, due to the impending education review.
On Monday night, trustees voted in favour of moving forward with the scheduled March 21 byelection — despite receiving notice late last week from senior officials from Manitoba Education to reconsider the date.
Work has been underway to organize a byelection to replace two school trustees who left the positions after winning their respective campaigns in the Sept. 10 provincial election.
"At the 11th hour, one could even say it was well past the 11th hour, we received notice from the ministry to consider delaying the election," said Chris Broughton, chairman of the WSD board.
"The problem with that is the election has effectively already started. The City of Winnipeg has already incurred costs, there’s already been advertising of the election date, and there’s already candidates out campaigning."
It’s unclear how much the byelection is expected to cost. Typically, the figure corresponds with the number of eligible voters in an area. (Broughton said the price tag will likely be "in the neighbourhood" of "a couple hundred thousand dollars.")
Broughton said the division and province’s correspondence about the byelection dates to when now-NDP MLAs Mark Wasyliw and Lisa Naylor — former trustees of Ward 3 and 4, respectively — were elected.
The division was advised to continue with the byelection as usual on multiple occasions, Broughton said, adding trustees had heard from the province on the file as recently as early January, prior to the latest message.
"Given there is no legislated requirement to hold the byelection at a fixed time, the department strongly suggested that the division delay the byelection," a provincial spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
The spokesperson cited the pending K-12 education review report, which "may include recommendations on the governance structure of the school system, including the future of trustees... Holding a byelection with the imminent release of this report is an unwise expenditure of public money."
The province did not respond directly to a question about prior correspondence with the WSD on the matter.
Since the K-12 review was announced in January 2019, school division employees have speculated the province will undertake major changes, such as amalgamation. There are currently 37 public school boards in the province, each with a number of democratically-elected trustees.
Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen has repeatedly hinted at amalgamation, raising the subject during the same news conference in which he announced the review — the first of its kind in a half-century.
The final report is expected to be made public at the end of March.
Alan Campbell, Manitoba School Boards Association president, said it is his understanding the division carried out its mandate under the Public Schools Act, while under the impression it was doing so in favour of the government.
The pending K–12 education review report "may include recommendations on the governance structure of the school system, including the future of trustees... Holding a byelection with the imminent release of this report is an unwise expenditure of public money." – Provincial spokesperson
Boards are required to fill a vacancy by holding an election "as soon as reasonably practicable," as per the legislation. It also states the senior election official must consider voter participation, as well as the availability of election officials and voting places, in deciding on a date.
Campbell said while all members of the association interact with the province on an individual basis, it’s unfortunate the Winnipeg School Division believed it was being proactive on this matter.
"I can’t recall a scenario where the provincial government has offered guidance or strong encouragement… to hold off on an election. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened," he added.
Campbell suggested discussion needs to take place between the division, government, and City of Winnipeg clerk on what to do next.
"To me, it amounts to election interference," said Broughton, adding he has inquired about why the review’s results would affect a byelection, but has yet to hear back from the province.
"We’re really perplexed by this sudden change of direction from the province, and it leaves me with a conclusion that the education review is meaningless. The review is really meant to validate the plans that they already have."
Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.