Fort La Bosse School Division Superintendent Barry Pitz joined R.M. of Wallace-Woodworth Council at their June 8 regular virtual meeting to share the division’s perspective on Bill 64, The Education Modernization Act.
Pitz cites the main issue with the legislation as being the loss of the locally elected Board of Trustees, who are the eyes and ears of the ratepayers.
“There is certainly the potential as the Bill sits right now that all of that voice will go to an education authority appointed out of Winnipeg, and that is the biggest concern for our school board,” he said. “The board will no longer be elected representatives representing their communities but an appointed board and that is concerning to anybody that believes in democracy in terms of representatives for their region and their areas.”
Pitz said not being able to address local matters locally will leave a significant void. He cited the example of the Elkhorn School parents who reached out to him with concerns over students being in remote learning for an extended period and the detrimental impact they felt it had on them.
“I think what we have here is a very precious model in terms if local governance,” he said. “Of course, that would not be the same as we know it now.”
Pitz feels that through the reform plan, the province is focused on achieving one of its primary objectives – driving down costs.
“The Fort La Bosse School Division has always been looking at efficiencies, and the government has forced us to become even more efficient,” he said. “They’ve already capped administration costs and our ability to tax locally, so in essence they already are very much in control to getting to the goals that they wish to get to.”
Some advocacy efforts the division has engaged in to date have included a virtual town hall meeting, presentations to municipal councils and consultations with MLAs Doyle Piwniuk and Greg Nesbitt. Pitz praised Nesbitt for his willingness to engage in dialogue and constructive discussion, and encouraged Council to touch base with him.
“Greg's a good listener. He certainly took our concerns back and got us some answers,” he said.
Pitz expects communication to be ramped up as the summer progresses and the new school year approaches. Signage and awareness campaigns are being conducted by the local and provincial Manitoba Teachers Society, the Manitoba Association of School Trustees and the Manitoba School Boards Association. Garry Draper, Chair of the Fort La Bosse Board of Trustees, is one of over 300 people who have registered to speak when the Bill goes before a legislative committee this fall. Pitz suggested that Council consider making a similar presentation.
Fort La Bosse has made various resources available to the public through its website and shared material with parent advisory councils as well.
During the discussion, Reeve Clayton Canart asked whether local trustees would be completely opposing the legislation, or looking for opportunities to bring forward constructive suggestions and amendments.
“I think our board would be pleased if there was an opportunity to make amendments,” Pitz said. “No full outright opposition, but there are components they would prefer to see reconsidered.”
“The government has a right and responsibility to follow through with their plan, but also the responsibility to listen to constituents and be open-minded.”
Pitz sees it as crucial for parents of current students as well as past graduates to take an active interest in the implications of the proposed reform, airing their concerns and offering alternatives and solutions.
“If there's going to be any consideration for adjustments or amendments to the Bill, it'll have to come from parents, rather than myself or perhaps the school board because that'll look a bit like self-preservation,” he said. “I think if parents and people in the community are concerned about this…if their concerns are shared with their elected officials and making the minister and premier aware. That's the voice that needs to be focused.”
Canart and his Council were supportive.
“We want to have the schools stay open and we identified how important education is to the students in our area and the growth of our municipalities. We want to keep these voices and decisions as local as we can,” Canart said.
Coun. Mark Humphries expressed frustration with the centralization mindset being displayed by the government in power.
“I’m not convinced MLAs are doing any more than toeing the party line,” he said. He wondered how much freedom they have individually to represent the will of their constituents.
“I think it is only mass pressure that will change it.”
“There's a fair bit at stake for communities within Fort La Bosse,” Pitz responded. “You won't have people in your communities if you don't have a skating rink and a school.”
Under the proposed legislation, Fort La Bosse will merge with the Southwest Horizon and Turtle Mountain School Divisions to form one of 15 regions. Pitz said that preliminary meetings have been held to determine what that new entity might look like.