Louis Riel School Division remains committed to supporting its students and remains focused on its goals as it begins to absorb the sweeping changes proposed in the recently announced provincial education reform bill.
That’s one of key messages that came through as The Lance talked to key figures in the division in light of the March 15 release of the long-awaited K-12 review by the Progressive Conservatives, who also introduced the Education Modernization Act, also known as Bill 64.
The bill plans to eliminate the province’s 37 public school boards, to be replaced with one education authority, which will be made up of government appointees that will oversee 15 regions. School divisions have been grouped together to comprise these regions. The new structure will essentially eliminate the roles of school trustees, as schools will instead have community councils made of up parents, which will give parents more say at the local level, said Education Minister Cliff Cullen at a March 15 news conference. A director of education will head each region.
Louise Johnston, LRSD’s board chair, said her initial reaction to the proposed reforms was one of disappointment, not least because of the inference of the province’s new tagline: better education starts today.
"We’re talking about students and parents and staff who are already stretched, who have been dealing with so many challenges during the pandemic," Johnston said.
"I believe Louis Riel School Division continues to do a great job in the community. I’m very demoralized, and as board chair, I find the proposed changes concerning and disturbing."
"On the flipside, there’s still lots to focus on, and I believe better education in the division is already happening," she added. "The majority of trustees on our board are parents who’ve also served on parent advisory councils and community centre boards. In the parent advisory councils I was on, we had some great discussions, but we didn’t have the authority to make any changes, which is why many of us seek election as school trustees — to help education continue to move forward. Last night, you could see the depth of work and investment in our division. LRSD is a good place to be, and there’s lots of equity in terms of parental voices."
Johnston was referring to the division’s regular board meeting that was held virtually on March 16, when there were a number of presentations and updates about projects and initiatives happening by parents, staff and trustees.
Johnston acknowledged there’s a need for change in some areas, which she said is a natural part of the process, especially when there are so many different factors in play, but said that change in the division should ideally be the result of effective collaboration. Such changes include updates to the curriculum and the funding model based on education property taxes, but she points to "the human cost" if and when the reforms are implemented.
"My philosophy in life has always been that education is a great equalizer. No matter where you come from, if you can get a good education, you can change anything," she said.
Pamela Kolochuk, LRSD’s board vice-chair, said she was disappointed when she first heard about the slated changes, not least because she fears that local families may not have enough of a voice in the new structure.
"We represent the best interests of our students and their families, but the message from the province makes it sound like education is bad, which is a bit devastating. Take the pandemic — LRSD has communicated with its families and gone above and beyond to keep everyone safe. We’ve been doing the right things," she said.
Kolochuk said she expected some changes based on the recommendations of the report, such as fewer trustees, but was surprised by the wholesale reforms that are being recommended. She said for a division that looks after 15,000 students, there are relatively few senior management positions in LRSD. As well, she said there are different things happening in each division that could get marginalized in a centralized model.
"For example, who is going to ensure that French immersion education stays strong in the division? There’s a comparatively large French immersion in LRSD, but from a citywide perspective it’s smaller, so will these families have enough of a voice if French immersion is lumped in with everything else?"
Diversity also plays a huge part in the division, Kolochuk said. "When I look at the schools without parent councils, they are generally the ones that have the most diversity. How are they going to be taken care of, when there might be language barriers or parents working two jobs?"
With all this in mind, Kolochuk said the division’s goal is to remain focused on the work it continues to do.
"We’re going to continue to focus on our values and what we can accomplish in the next 15 months," she said, noting that being a trustee provides a broader perspective rather than being the parent of a child at one or two schools.
"We’re going to keep going as strongly as we can, and I hope there’s a way to change this."
In a statement posted on LRSD’s website on March 18, superintendent Christian Michalik said consultations on priority actions within the strategy will start immediately to establish a roadmap for timelines by September 2021.
"Louis Riel School Division is committed to working collaboratively with government officials throughout the consultation process and advocating for an education system that provides a equitable, inclusive and engaging environment for all students as outlined in our Multi-Year Strategic Plan," Michalik said.
"We understand this announcement may leave students, staff and families with questions. We will keep our community updated as we familiarize ourselves with the strategy and what it means for LRSD."
The plan is to have to have the restructuring in place by July 1, 2022, the province said. At press time, the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine was set to remain unaffected by the proposed changes.
Louis Riel School Division currently has 40 schools and more than 15,000 students.
Go online at bettereducationmb.ca and lrsd.net for more information.
The Lance community journalist
Simon Fuller is the community journalist for The Lance. Canstar’s senior reporter, he joined the team in June 2009 to write for The Sou’wester, which was then the new paper in the Canstar family.