October 17, 2019

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Editorial

There's a better way to fund schools and boards

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/7/2015 (1561 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Parents had been complaining about crowding and the falling quality of education at École La Vérendrye School since 2010. The French milieu environment was proving too popular, classes were full and they wanted something to be done.

But when a delegation showed up at a board meeting early this year — parents were hearing about a potential “school swap” — they had not seen an outside consultant’s report on how the Winnipeg School Division could fix the problem.

So renegade trustee Mike Babinsky left the meeting and tried to get into a staff member’s computer, to let parents see the recommended options. That’s transparency?

It’s one incident. But it’s powerful insight to the attitudes at public bodies that often give short shrift to their duty to taxpayers. That report should have been prominently posted on the division’s website. This is the Internet age. People should not have to ask for these reports — public offices are compelled to release them.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/7/2015 (1561 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Parents had been complaining about crowding and the falling quality of education at École La Vérendrye School since 2010. The French milieu environment was proving too popular, classes were full and they wanted something to be done.

But when a delegation showed up at a board meeting early this year — parents were hearing about a potential "school swap" — they had not seen an outside consultant’s report on how the Winnipeg School Division could fix the problem.

Winnipeg School Board administration building.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg School Board administration building.

So renegade trustee Mike Babinsky left the meeting and tried to get into a staff member’s computer, to let parents see the recommended options. That’s transparency?

It’s one incident. But it’s powerful insight to the attitudes at public bodies that often give short shrift to their duty to taxpayers. That report should have been prominently posted on the division’s website. This is the Internet age. People should not have to ask for these reports — public offices are compelled to release them.

Yet even when documents are posted on the board’s website, finding them can be like combing through the proverbial haystack.

The WSD’s handling of the La Vérendrye issue, along with a host of other problems, led a review to conclude the board is dysfunctional, crippled by a lack of professionalism, respect and understanding of the roles of the political and administrative arms.

The review of WSD’s problems showed what can happen when there’s huge turnover on a board — six of nine trustees were new. The provincial government should give some thought to staggering the four-year terms, which would involve holding ward elections every two years.

Further, the review showed the importance of in-depth orientation. That should be easier for larger boards, but it failed at WSD — the finance committee drafted a budget unaware there was a three-year financial plan that had to be respected.

Other boards, however, have been similarly called to task: in 2001, the Morris-Macdonald board was sacked by the education minister over finance. In 2011, the minister sent her deputy minister to sort out what was going on at the Mystery Lake school board after it fired Thompson’s high school principal.

A running theme is a lack of transparency. Taxpayers and parents feel left out of the loop, incapable of getting good answers from trustees and board administration.

The WSD, for example, won’t record how each trustee voted on motions unless two-thirds of the board agrees to do so. Reporters, meanwhile, have stopped routinely covering board meetings because they go in camera and behind closed doors far too often.

Now that school boards will fall under the watch of the provincial ombudsman, taxpayers will be able to challenge boards on information withheld from them.

That’s a step in the right direction.

A bigger problem for accountability, however, is the way schools are funded. School boards have taxing power, which creates disparities. Some have greater capacity to raise revenue from property owners; some have greater demands, depending on students’ needs.

The provincial government has constitutional responsibility for funding education, but it has used the board’s taxing authority to off-load its duty — it used to cover 80 per cent of school funding, it now covers 62 per cent at WSD and, in other divisions, 50 per cent. It has further muddied taxpayers’ ability to follow the dollar by channeling grants through a myriad of special funding envelopes.

Education levies comprise half or more of property tax bills. That squeezes municipalities’ ability to raise revenue and makes it impossible for parents to know who, ultimately, to blame for the rising cost of education, even as Manitoba students fall behind Canadian counterparts.

The province must assume responsibility for funding schools from its general revenues, leaving school boards to set budgets for local priorities. That would begin to inject real accountability across the school boards in Manitoba.

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