Stephen David, Superintendent of the Park West School Division, was invited to speak to R.M. of Wallace-Woodworth Councillors at their May 11 virtual meeting to acquaint them with Bill 64, The Education Modernization Act, and its potential ramifications.
The legislation, which will be before Manitoba’s 57 MLAs in the fall, will see the amalgamation of current school divisions into regions and the creation of a provincial education authority in time for the start of the 2022-2023 school year.
During his presentation, David highlighted the perspective of the division's Board of Trustees, who are indecisive about whether to oppose the legislation outright or attempt to come up with a compromise. He noted that many of Park West's counterparts have seen their trustees and administration stand firm against the Bill, and he expects that the loss of local voices and autonomy will prompt his board to do the same.
According to David, dissention is beginning to mount across much of the province.
“Nobody's denying the fact that trying to improve outcomes for students is a good thing,” he said. “Under that veil the province is suggesting some sweeping reforms that most people would deem to be centralization of power and taking power away from local school boards and decision-makers. I think there’s some good things in the bill, but there are also a lot of red flags.”
Of particular concern is the proposed lifting of the moratorium on school closures.
“There is significant uncertainty about what might happen with rural school divisions,” David said. “Politicians and the governing party are saying this doesn't have anything to do with school closures, yet they've completely changed the clause that could make them very simple. I'm not suggesting that’s going to happen, but it's happened in every other province that's done something like this, including Nova Scotia recently.
Deputy Reeve Val Caldwell agrees.
“That's my biggest fear…that it's just going to give them that opportunity to use that urban mindset again that bigger is better,” she said.
David sees rural schools as being threatened in the years ahead, especially in light of the cost savings the province wishes to achieve. “Many people think that this is about saving money,” he said. “The quickest way to save money is closing schools, not (eliminating) school boards. They don't cost as much as people suggest.”
David questions the effectiveness of the mandatory school community councils, which would replace the present voluntary parent advisory councils and function in an advisory capacity in a number of areas. He sees difficulties in recruiting people away from their already busy lives to serve.
“The whole issue of parent councils is problematic,” he said. “It's great to think parents will want to do it but being a board member is a huge commitment and I don't think individual committees are going to get 5 or 10 people willing to commit at that same level.”
David points to inconsistencies between the province's reform plan and the recommendations of the K to 12 Review Commission, whose report was released by Education Minister Cliff Cullen earlier this year. He thinks conclusions may have been drawn before Bill 64 was even drafted.
“They've made the decision, now they are picking the stuff from the commission that will work for them,” he said.
Reeve Clayton Canart agreed, and pledged Council's support for the division's advocacy efforts.
“We know how much education is important to our students…to our communities, so as a municipality we will support you guys in what you need to try and help make changes that are needed and important,” he said. “From what I’ve seen with this government, I don't think there’s any chance you're going to eliminate the Bill. It's going to be trying to negotiate what we can live with and what we can't.”
David told Council that the focus recently has been on meeting with a variety of stakeholders, which include MLAs, municipal councils, and opposition critics, to share their concerns and talk about their fear for the future of rural education. Administration from the three divisions which would join - Park West, Beautiful Plains and Rolling River, have also come together to discuss what they can do collectively in terms of advocacy. In addition, David has called on the Manitoba School Boards Association to present a united position on behalf of its membership.
David stressed that communication with government, ratepayers and the public at large will be key in the months ahead, and that municipal councils can play an important role in getting information out. He noted that over 300 people have registered to speak on the bill when it reaches the committee stage.
“We're making between now and the end of June about educating people about Bill 64.”
Council decided to maintain contact and invite Mr. David to a future meeting for another update. They also expressed interest in hearing from a representative from the Fort La Bosse School Division about the impact of Bill 64.