Comment: The education fields are frozen

So why is the provincial government sowing the seeds of reform now?

The last thing rural communities need is a further silencing of their own voices in the decisions that impact their very foundations, like local public schools.

For everything there is a season and growing up in a small rural community, I recognize this is certainly the time of year when we take time to pause following months of hard work. The animals still need tending but the crop is in the bin. Winter has arrived.

This past year has brought many unexpected challenges, from an unexpected global pandemic, to market crashes and export restrictions. Throughout, local school boards have tried to make sense of it all with one goal in mind: to keep communities safe, kids in school and in spite of persistent connectivity issues across rural and northern Manitoba, to provide uninterrupted learning opportunities designed to respond to the distinct needs of each city, town and village we call home.

It seems like more than a year ago that the K-12 Education Review Commission finalized its report. The arrival of COVID-19 prevented us from seeing what the commissioners had to say. The report was put on the shelf by government because, as farmers know better than anyone, planting seeds at the wrong time means that the crop will fail to yield. Yet, from my unique vantage point, it seems that instead of waiting for planting season to start, the approach taken during the pandemic has been to scatter seeds across the frozen field.

One of the biggest challenges has been that the type of seed being planted remains unknown. Bill 64, “The Education Modernization Act” is one such seed. Based on the package it came in, we can only guess at what kind of plant this is. As a proud rural Manitoban, I’m not looking forward to its coming harvest.

In 2002, the NDP introduced a law with virtually the exact same title. Truth be told, it had very little to do with “modernization” and everything to do with eliminating local voices by stamping out school boards across rural Manitoba — taking away the ability of communities to make local choices concerning the kinds of programs, supports and services that are best tailored to meet local community needs.

In rural Manitoba, we have seen this all before and even as recently as during this pandemic itself. From the emergence of amalgamated Regional Health Authorities to closure of countless community hospitals, clinics and emergency rooms, Broadway continues to move community decision-making (and services) further away from the places where they rightly ought to be made. What began well before 2016 has seemingly not stopped post-2016. And so enters Bill 64, which promises more of the same, this time for our local school divisions and districts.

The last thing rural communities need is a further silencing of their own voices in the decisions that impact their very foundations, like local public schools.

Since March, locally governed school divisions have stepped up efforts to respond to the needs of rural Manitobans. From hamper deliveries to educational work-arounds in those regions where internet networks have been long promised but never delivered, the confluence of needs has at times been overwhelming.

I know you can all empathize with the stress this has caused. I used to joke that when the K-12 education review was announced, I was 33. After going through that long consultation process, followed by one of the world’s greatest human catastrophes during which schools have been front and centre, I feel like I am nearing 65! That may be a bit of levity but it really is no joke, as I am certain so many of our teachers, principals, bus drivers, education assistants, custodians and superintendents – not to mention our students and families – also feel that way.

So it came as a real surprise that, in the middle of such a back-to-school year, along comes Bill 64 – one of the only times in legislative history that a bill was read and then not published, meaning that no one knows what is in it. But as the seasoned among us know, if it is anything like the “Public Schools Modernization Act” of the last government, then it only comes with the reduction of local voices and local choices in matters of public education.

Such legislation ought to sound the alarm for anyone who maintains the interests of their community. Two years ago, we polled Manitobans and found that while half of all Manitobans wished to keep their local neighbourhood and community school boards, this number rose to 80 per cent for rural Manitobans.

Eight in 10 also felt that it remains an important democratic right for Manitobans to directly elect their own representatives to oversee their local public schools. If you are counted among those folks, then I hope you’ll join with us in sending Broadway the strongest message: that amalgamation is an affront to rural Manitoba and that nothing should take away from our hard-won democratic rights as communities.

If Bill 64 intends to change either of these, then it is time for Broadway to plant a very different seed.

– Alan M. Campbell is president of the Manitoba School Boards Association.

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