Since the announcement of Bill 64 and BEST, everyone I meet grins and states, "I bet you are really happy to not be the superintendent of HSD right now!" to which I reply, "You bet!" Considering that I am retired and my children are out of school, Bill 64 should not affect me personally. I won’t lose my job, my children won’t get a substandard education and I can even benefit from having school taxes removed from my property bill. So I shouldn’t need to care anymore, right?
But the truth is, education is one of the most important societal goods for all of us—and it has been a hard-fought generational battle to ensure our children get the best we can offer them. When my great-great grandfather Johann Koop started the new village of Neuanlage southeast of Blumenort, one of the first things the village did was band together to set up a school. My great grandmother was the first teacher, my grandfather and later my uncles were trustees. And they achieved this all without reliance on the provincial government.
Over the years, this school, along with thousands of other locally initiated schools, were incorporated into provincial school divisions through consolidation. The public education system in Manitoba has been built from the ground up by parents and communities—and maintained and enhanced by those same people until today. As costs and complexity increased the province and the local taxpayers have shared the responsibility of funding public education to different degrees.
If privatization of MTS and Hydro are a big enough concern to Manitobans to call for a referendum, then what about the biggest proposed reversal in the history of Manitoba—the planned complete takeover of the locally-built school system by the provincial government.
As a former superintendent of HSD, I can state without a second of hesitation that the local school board where I served as Chief Educational Officer had the best interests of their communities and their children at heart and was relentless in pursuing that. Together we fought for everything we have today in HSD. We fought for new schools when the immigration waves in the 1970s and 2000s filled our modest schools to the rafters. We fought for every portable classroom that we got and still have, as we wait for another K-4 school to be built. These things do not just happen and when the government finally awards a school, it has often been in the divisional plan for 10 years or more. Years ago, when we had to move the Niverville Grade 5 and 6 students to the collegiate from the bursting elementary school, we were already fighting hard for the recently built Niverville Collegiate.
And now I assume that rural communities with the opposite problem of declining enrollment will be fighting hard to maintain their smaller community schools when the provincial authority is committed to greater efficiency and cost cutting—but they will be doing so without the help of a local board and superintendent.
One of the first books I read as a new superintendent was Phillip Schlechty’s book Working on the Work in which he urged superintendents and boards to "lead up" and not just locally. This was what I saw happening across the province when I worked for the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents.
The way in which any significant and positive change came about in the province followed a common and repeating pattern. A school board would begin discussions on how to address growing local concerns, such as youth mental health problems, declining Math scores, inclusion of all students, the need for continued reading instruction at higher grades, technology and connectivity and the huge issues of poverty and school readiness or lack thereof. The superintendent would then be expected to find out what other divisions might be doing to address these things. Ideas from one division would be shared with other divisions in the area and across the province. Within a surprisingly short time many divisions would be making local plans for "better practices" in their area.
Although these innovations and improvements were sometimes modestly funded by the Department of Education to encourage their adoption by all, or to maintain a promising improvement that had already become widespread, this is where local taxation often enabled a division to move forward in a significant way.
Bill 64, despite the strong move to what looks like a highly efficient centralized system, leaves much to chance and open to question: Will young parents with two jobs want to take on the work that paid and trained professionals are now doing—and do so on a voluntary basis? Will many then choose to homeschool if they are already doing half the work—which may in fact be one of the hidden agendas in Bill 64. Will the chaos of the transition with principals and parents struggling through the new power structures (or lack of them) lead many to choose private education—a strategy that has worked very well to the south of us. While homeschooling and private education are legitimate choices for some parents, society as a whole is dependent on a robust high-quality public school system. Cutting education taxes will weaken rather than strengthen the public system.
What criteria will parents use for choosing principals and teachers? What criteria will the Provincial Education Authority use for choosing regional directors? Would parents sooner take their concerns to a local board with locally chosen and locally accountable administration than to a faceless and unrepresentative Provincial Education Authority? Would regions prefer a Chief Educational Officer (superintendent) who has roots in the community, and understands and cares about their community or would they prefer to try to achieve their goals through a director appointed by and responsible directly to the province? Does anyone my age or older still remember provincial inspectors?
My biggest concern is that by centralizing public education the province is taking it out of the hands of those who built it and have a passion for improving and advancing it, because it is a vital part of their community. Improvement from here on would be mandated by plans and agendas hatched by provincial bureaucrats, not likely based on local needs or the true needs of our children. That looks like a grey future to me and will not bring about the improvement in student achievement that is the premise behind Bill 64.
I believe that Bill 64 as it stands must not be passed into law without broader permission from those who have invested so much towards the success of public education in Manitoba. The current government should consider other provinces, such as Saskatchewan, that did a similar consultation and decided to proceed with a reasonable level of amalgamation but left school boards intact. Or Quebec, which reversed its plan to replace elected boards with appointed boards. Or Nova Scotia, which tried to eliminate school boards in 2018 and has since gone back to elected boards.
If significant changes are not made to this legislation, I challenge the province to leave it until after the next election—to truly and honestly determine the will of the people. If after over a hundred years of growth and advancement in public education at the local level, the current government is in such a hurry to make these abrupt and far-reaching changes, then they could call another early election (shortly after the provincial vaccination rollout is complete). Public education could be the main issue with reference to their record in the recent overhaul of the public health care system.