November 19, 2018

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Opinion

It's time to start talking about amalgamation

Toronto has 22. Calgary has seven. Edmonton has nine. Winnipeg has 54.

Sometimes, having fewer is a good thing, and in the case of public school trustees in this city, it’s time for a serious discussion about amalgamating school divisions. Winnipeg is the only Canadian city that still has multiple school boards for secular public education. It’s time to modernize.

But discussions of amalgamating school divisions in Winnipeg are much like debating the reopening of Portage and Main — a lot of talk that seems to go nowhere.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, the Filmon government commissioned the Norrie Report, which recommended reducing the number of Winnipeg’s school divisions to four. Of course, that didn’t happen. Then, in 2002, some progress was made by the governing NDP, which chopped the provincial school divisions to 37 from 57.

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Toronto has 22. Calgary has seven. Edmonton has nine. Winnipeg has 54.

Sometimes, having fewer is a good thing, and in the case of public school trustees in this city, it’s time for a serious discussion about amalgamating school divisions. Winnipeg is the only Canadian city that still has multiple school boards for secular public education. It’s time to modernize.

But discussions of amalgamating school divisions in Winnipeg are much like debating the reopening of Portage and Main — a lot of talk that seems to go nowhere.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, the Filmon government commissioned the Norrie Report, which recommended reducing the number of Winnipeg’s school divisions to four. Of course, that didn’t happen. Then, in 2002, some progress was made by the governing NDP, which chopped the provincial school divisions to 37 from 57.

But right now, Winnipeg has 54 public school trustees representing six divisions, meaning there are more school trustees than city councillors, more trustees than Manitoba MPs, and almost as many school trustees as there are Manitoba MLAs. That’s an awful lot of political representation.

Now, quickly — tell me the name of your school trustee. Can’t remember? I’m hard-pressed, as well. And at election time, many people shake their heads and vote for a name that looks vaguely familiar on the ballot box.

As a working example, let’s compare Edmonton’s single public school division to Winnipeg’s six. Edmonton has about the same number of student enrolments, and a comparable budget when all things are considered, yet Edmonton provides services to its students with nine school trustees and has a public school system that features French-language schools.

Both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives have suggested that for now, they are going to leave amalgamation a voluntary option, but it seems unlikely that any division will cede power to another. It’s still about politics, after all. Former education minister Ian Wishart, who was taken out of cabinet in the last shuffle, did say that there is a review being undertaken of the entire system, which will be released in 2019.

Also up for review is how money is raised to fund education. Manitoba is the last province in Canada in which school boards have taxing power. So, as retired Free Press education reporter Nick Martin pointed out, "Equity in public education depends enormously on the serendipity of arbitrary school-division borders and the relative affluence of homeowners living within them, as well as the concentration of tax-paying commercial and industrial properties."

If you, as a homeowner, can’t afford to live in a school division and can’t afford to send your child to one, you also don’t get the benefit of the services that are offered in school divisions located where homes are worth more and where there is a large commercial base for taxation. With a single school division, that issue would be resolved to some degree. At least, that would be the hope.

Of course, the Manitoba School Boards Association has gone on record to oppose amalgamation, saying the savings would be minimal and suggesting that it’s a question of democracy, transparency and accountability.

But the Winnipeg School Division was the subject of a scathing report in 2015 that suggested that trustees were acting out of control. In 2016, the province ordered a third-party audit after suggesting that while the school board had made progress in transparency and accountability, an independent review was still required. The WSD had been under a dark cloud for a number of years with growing concerns that too much business was being conducted behind closed doors.

This doesn’t really instil great confidence in transparency and accountability. And while WSD may have improved, news in January that the Louis Riel School District had suspended a school trustee, without explanation, suggests that transparency and accountability may be just a slogan.

The provincial government has committed to a dialogue about amalgamation. That’s a good start. But it needs to go beyond just a discussion of savings — of dollars and cents — and into the realm of what amalgamation would mean for students.

We’ve seen some of the depressing statistics on how our students are doing when compared to other provinces in testing for math, reading and sciences skills. We’ve also seen the statistics on how we are doing in terms of completion of high school. There will be debates about how to read these numbers and the concerns about measurement in standardized testing. But the bottom line is that Manitoba students are not doing very well. In fact, they are pretty much near the bottom most of the time.

This isn’t to say that amalgamating the school boards in Winnipeg will solve all our education problems, but it could mean a more even playing field in Winnipeg, so the "have" and "have-not" students all get the same programs no matter where they live. We do know that can have an important effect on learning outcomes.

Shannon Sampert is the director of the media centre for public policy and knowledge mobilization at the University of Winnipeg.

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