The River East Transcona School Division’s board of trustees has made its concerns with the province’s education reform bill clear in an open letter to Premier Brian Pallister.
On May 20, board chair Jerry Sodomlak wrote the premier on behalf of the board to request the province pull Bill 64, also known as the ‘Education Modernization Act."
"The expansive and regressive reforms proposed in the bill will set the provision of quality of public education in eventual peril at the expense of children, the future of Manitoba," Sodomlak, board chair and a trustee for Ward 1 of the RETSD, wrote. "The governance structure outlined in Bill 64 is anti-democratic and an example of a failed structure attempted in other provinces, such as in PEI."
If approved, the bill, which was first tabled in March, would do away with school boards across the province, with the exception of the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine, among other changes. Instead, the province would set up an education authority, which would oversee 15 regional advisory groups. Winnipeg’s six school divisions will be consolidated into one region, representing over 100,000 students. Changes would come into effect by July 1, 2022.
"I appreciate that change can be difficult," Cliff Cullen, minister of education, told The Herald. "I appreciate some of the ideas around changes that relate to school divisions and school trustees, specifically. The fact is the roles and responsibility of school trustees has changed."
The River East Transcona School Division is not alone in publicly expressing concerns about how the bill will impact schools across the province. The board of trustees for the Winnipeg School Division, which includes schools throughout Elmwood, issued a lengthy response to the bill on April 30.
"It appears Minister Cullen doesn’t have any understanding of the real cost of classroom education," the 23-page document states, in response to the assertion that the modernization act will save the province $40 million.
Sodomlak and the RETSD board also questioned the suggestion that the changes would save any money.
"As an amalgamated division in 2002, we have first-hand experience of the exponential expenses as a result, with conservative estimates of over $3 million additional annual costs," Sodomlak wrote.
"I wouldn’t frame this as an amalgamation," Cullen replied. "I would frame this as a restructuring of how we deliver this in Manitoba. We have 37 school divisions, a lot of duplication in services. We see a cost saving in administration, going to shared services model we can find some savings there."
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society has also come out in opposition to the bill, citing the appointment structure that replaces democratically elected trustees as one of many points of contention.
Cullen refuted the idea that the changes contained in bill 64 are undemocratic.
"We have currently about 300 elected trustees," Cullen said. Bill 64 would "replace those trustees community elected councils in our local schools to provide advisory capacity to principals, which will result in over 3,000 elected people at the end of the day."
While Cullen said he welcomes debate on education, he expressed frustration with the way Bill 64 has been framed.
"What I don’t appreciate is boards and unions trying to fear monger and misrepresent what we’re trying to do," Cullen said.
Nello Altomare, MLA for Transcona and the opposition education critic, has been vocal in his opposition to Bill 64 since it was tabled back in March.
"There is universal condemnation of Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act," Altomare told The Herald, "because it simply doesn’t reflect the views of Manitobans as expressed in the recently completed K-12 Education review."
Residents are making their opposition to Bill 64 public. Altomare, a former school principal and educator within RETSD, said his office alone had delivered "FightBill64" lawn signs to 75 residences in Transcona at press time, while the provincial NDP had delivered over 2,200 province wide. The provincial Liberal party and MTS also have similar lawn and window signs available from their websites.
"People care about their local schools, and with the removal of locally elected officials, community writ large is being carved out of the decision making process," he said. "The Provincial Education Authority is answerable only to their political masters and will certainly be challenged to ensure local voice is responded to and heard."
The Herald community journalist
Sheldon Birnie is the reporter/photographer for The Herald. The author of Missing Like Teeth: An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock (1990-2001), his writing has appeared in journals and online platforms across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. A husband and father of two young children, Sheldon enjoys playing guitar and rec hockey when he can find the time. Email him at email@example.com Call him at 204-697-7112