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“Appalling, disturbing”: school board sounds off on education bill

Somber, upset, defeated, infuriated - the range of moods on display at the latest board of trustees meeting of the Flin Flon School Division (FFSD) was wide and not positive.

Somber, upset, defeated, infuriated - the range of moods on display at the latest board of trustees meeting of the Flin Flon School Division (FFSD) was wide and not positive.

The March 23 meeting was dominated by one topic, one that first made headlines over a week prior. March 15 brought the release of Bill 64, the “Education Modernization Act” as released by the provincial government and the ruling Progressive Conservative (PC) party. Among other changes, the bill and its accompanying K-12 education review would eliminate almost all school division and elected school boards in Manitoba - including the FFSD - and combine their duties into a small number of regions. For northern Manitoba, the current plan is to combine all four northern school divisions - the FFSD, Frontier School Division, Kelsey School Division in The Pas and Mystery Lake School Division in Thompson - into one group with no elected board.

The bill and review were the main subject of the FFSD board meeting, possibly one of the last meetings the board will be able to hold pending the status of the bill. The opposition Manitoba NDP, including Flin Flon MLA Tom Lindsey, have pledged to hold up the passing of the bill for as long as possible, but with the PCs holding 36 of the Legislature’s 57 seats, the bill appears almost certain to eventually pass.

“As of March 15, with the release of the K-12 report and the introduction of Bill 64, education in Manitoba will be changed forever. As we move forward, we want to remind everyone that the education of every student continues to be our top priority,” said board chair Murray Skeavington in his chair’s report.

In his report, Skeavington also read a quote from a provincial government official, dating back to 2016, without revealing the official’s name until after the quote was read.

“We as elected officials on Broadway need to do a better job of promoting the work that school trustees do and ensuring that people understand that but that also comes with giving them the autonomy and giving them local decision-making powers,” read the quote said aloud by Skeavington.

The board chair then revealed that it was said in a provincial candidates’ forum by Kelvin Goertzen, the current Manitoba deputy premier and former education minister who presided over the creation of the K-12 review and Bill 64.

When asked about the review and Bill 64 in the public question-and-answer period, trustees spoke up about the change. Board vice-chair Leslie Fernandes brought up the FFSD’s recent proposed changes to school programming as an example of why local boards still have importance - hundreds of pieces of correspondence were received by the division either supporting or coming down against the change. Fernandes argued that such a change, if proposed by the looming provincial education authority, would happen no matter what locals and parents thought of it.

“Defeated? Yes. Angry? Yes. After what this division just went through last month and the amount of hours and time we spent engaging our community, the fact that we are now just sitting here with no recourse whatsoever, it's absolutely appalling,” Fernandes said.

“The amount of time and dedication and this whole division has put into this community... and it's just gone. We had 500 people fill out surveys about a school restructure - a voice they would not otherwise have had if they did not have a local school board. This is exactly what we went through with the community - we heard from them, we listened to them, we let them speak, we let them send emails, write letters. That’s exactly what we’re here for, this is the whole point of the school trustee system, to speak for and listen to your community. It’s completely gone. Every single local voice is gone.”

“I think it’s terrible. They’re taking away local voices,” added trustee Tim Davis.

Skeavington said he was frustrated by the bill and review, saying it was consistent with existing provincial government education policy.

“The more and more I think of it, the more and more I get frustrated with this government and province. Going back 10 years, senior administrators have been asked to do more and more with less money and less everything else. Senior admin across this province have kept education going - on Monday and since then, it’s like our Premier has slapped them in the face and said, ‘You know what? We don’t care what you guys did. You haven’t done a good job for us. Goodbye. Get out of here,’” said the board chair.

“To me, that’s what hurts more, to see them treat people who have dedicated themselves to education like a piece of dirt. It’s just totally wrong. I hate to look at what education in Manitoba’s going to look like in three to four years, especially in the north, because I think the north is just going to get hammered here. With the poverty and everything else, it’s not going to get better.”

Other changes suggested in the bill include removing school principals and vice-principals from collective bargaining units with the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) union. Services like workforce planning, procurement, investments and infrastructure, will be consolidated in the authority instead of by a local or regional school board.

Provincial education minister Cliff Cullen, who announced the bill’s release March 15, said the change would allow the province to free up around $40 million - about three per cent of the province’s annual education budget - for programming and resources, but did not provide details about where in the province that money may be allocated.

“They keep talking about this amount of money being saved, but not one shred of evidence as to where it’s coming from. There has been no mention of the positions they’re creating, councillors and truancy officers - are we going back 40 years? Truancy officers?” said Fernandes.

“It’s appalling. It’s disturbing. This government should be ashamed of itself. It’s the worst piece of legislation you could ever read.”

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