The cost of losing school trustees

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OUR provincial government has taken the stance that eliminating school boards is a win-win situation for education, parents, local communities and schools. Like many of their claims in the BEST (”Better Education Starts Today”) document in support of Bill 64, this one is based on outright ignorance, incomplete “truths” and faulty reasoning.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/05/2021 (510 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OUR provincial government has taken the stance that eliminating school boards is a win-win situation for education, parents, local communities and schools. Like many of their claims in the BEST (”Better Education Starts Today”) document in support of Bill 64, this one is based on outright ignorance, incomplete “truths” and faulty reasoning.

It is actually more of a “To the victor go the spoils,” in which the victors have no real educational philosophy, no understanding of boards or schools or choose to ignore what they know, who are willing to refute reality, and feel they do not need to justify their unsubstantiated claims to anyone.

Further, they are quite unwilling to apply the same conditions and rules to themselves. If they did, we might have three regions in Canada run by an advisory council that answers to the prime minister.

Unlike government, every current school division has a well-defined, clear mission statement outlining what they stand for in education, available to every Manitoban in addition to their own jurisdictions. Most of them were developed in extensive consultations with parents and other constituents. Also, contrary to what BEST says, every one of them places children at the forefront, and they are regularly revisited and renewed as a basis and guide for all board actions.

The example I am most familiar with is from Seven Oaks: “The Seven Oaks School Division is a Community of Learners, every one of whom shares the responsibility to assist children in acquiring an education which will enable them to lead fulfilling lives within the world as moral people and contributing members of society.”

I know those trustees welcome regular feedback on whether, and how, they are living up to this ideal. Other divisions’ missions are not unlike this in content or practice.

Our premier proclaims, “Tax-setting is the lion’s share of what trustees do,” and “trustees won’t be negotiating teachers’ collective agreements, (decreasing their) workload by 80 per cent,” signalling a gross misunderstanding about what trustees actually do. Most of what most trustees do is explain to their constituents how they are going to fulfill their mission and monitor their plans which, also contrary to BEST insinuations, are approved annually and are also open to scrutiny by every Manitoban.

When at their best, trustees debate and argue with each other, as in functioning democracies, about how they can serve children and the community better, bringing their public’s views to the divisional board table on matters which only from time to time focus on tax-setting — a matter which has largely been determined by the last two provincial governments.

Rarely is a whole board involved in bargaining, with a committee reporting on negotiations for eventual approval. The greater part of any board’s time is hearing, requesting and discussing reports from superintendents, focused on how the system is responding to community and school needs, amid occasional budget updates.

My experience has been that they are not reluctant to demand satisfactory answers from superintendents and secretary-treasurers.

Some further “inconvenient” truths: while it is quite true that the amount the province has allocated to the education sector has continued to increase, it is also true that the percentage of the overall cost that the province has covered has steadily decreased. This has placed a greater reliance on local property taxes, which are raised at this time by school boards.

What is also not true is the implication, as stated in the March 20 Free Press editorial “Province must justify bold education plan,” that the education portion of the property tax will disappear. It is clear in Bill 64 that the intent is to retain the Education Support Levy, a property tax already collected by municipalities and forwarded to the province for general revenues… for education purposes?

Disappearing is the opportunity for local school systems to collect taxes to support local initiatives. Local taxes have significantly enhanced resources to local schools and needy children, have supported local businesses and employed local people. And that, in one sense, is the biggest loss — the loss of local discretion and authority.

With that loss comes the biggest educational risk for the most needy children and families in Manitoba. While most children have been served well by our current arrangements, some have not. Looking after those children has mostly been a result of local initiative taken by trustees and boards with access to local resources and authority to allocate them to where needed most.

Losing locally elected boards will come at tremendous educational risk and societal cost.

John R. Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.

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