Abolishing school districts and boards will silence rural communities and may lead to the gutting of rural education, says Manitoba School Boards Association president Alan M. Campbell.
“Their voices will be gone,” Campbell told the Co-operator.
On March 15, the province released the text of Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act, one of several bills to pass the first reading in November without publicly releasing the text of the bill.
The bill follows a report from the 2019 Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education.
The province proposes sweeping changes to Manitoba’s education system. These include axing all English language school divisions and their boards of trustees, and then centralizing administration into a provincial education authority.
The education authority would oversee tasks like HR, IT, procurement, collective bargaining and remote learning, according to an explainer from the province.
Meanwhile, Manitoba would be divided into 15 education regions headed by directors of education who would “lead the delivery of K-12 education” and support “regional variation and local voice… in consultation with their local communities,” the explainer says.
The province says it will replace informal parent councils with school community council. Their role will be to advise the school principal. Parents will then elect an executive to work with the principal on “matters affecting the school community.”
One school council member from each region will be elected to a provincial advisory council for education.
The francophone school division will remain as structured, the province said, respecting its charter minority language rights.
The legislation is “designed to give parents more say,” Education Minister Cliff Cullen told media on March 15. It will formalize a structure for parents to interact with administration and education officials, he said.
Centralized decision-making will even out resource and funding disparities between divisions, he added.
While parents will have an advisory role, the province has little to say about what, if any, authority they will have, said Campbell.
“There’s not a lot of talk about what ‘the school community council will be responsible for,’” he said, adding there’s little about how the parents can hold the council accountable.
Campbell, a trustee in the Interlake School Division for over a decade, said as trustee he is directly responsible to parents, guardians and non-parent taxpayers for how school division money is spent. Until this year when the province froze educational taxes, trustees also were accountable for education tax rates.
This allowed community members to engage with the school board on issues that affected them.
The Co-operator asked the province what decision-making capacity the school community councils would have. In an emailed statement, Cullen said the councils will be the “local voice of schools and communities” and will have a budget to support parent engagement.
He said councils might be involved in assessing effectiveness of school programming, monitoring students’ learning outcomes, proposing capital construction projects at the school, deciding school policies, and overseeing student transportation.
However, it’s important that the new structure doesn’t become an unwieldy bureaucracy, said Eileen Sutherland, executive director of the Manitoba Rural Learning Consortium, a professional learning organization which supports Manitoba rural school divisions.
“It needs to be nimble the way rural school divisions have learned to operate,” wrote Sutherland in statements emailed to the Co-operator. “Research tells us that smaller organizations have the potential to be much more responsive.
“The strength of many rural communities is their keen interest in the education of children in their community. Having a voice is more than just simple rhetoric,” said Sutherland.
Campbell said he was concerned centralizing school administration will result in the gutting of rural schools which he likened to the gutting and closure of rural hospitals and clinics.
Many small communities in the Interlake are “just holding their own,” said Campbell. In some cases, tenacious school boards are what’s keeping schools open.
These schools often offer essential services people might otherwise have to travel to get, said Campbell. This might include social workers, addictions treatment, occupational therapy, speech language pathologists and access to other clinicians. If not for school board funding, these wouldn’t exist, he said.
The commission report took note of differences in resources between northern and rural schools and urban centres — praising the “resilience, creativity and inventiveness” of people in working around “scarce or non-existent” supports and services.
It said students in rural or remote areas should have the same high-quality programming and access as urban students and noted that upward of 20 per cent of immigrants in Manitoba settle in rural areas.
Cullen said the current funding model leads to huge inequities between communities.
Sutherland allowed centralization may offer some benefits for rural schools.
“Certainly some rural divisions are extremely small and so joining with others may expand programming and expand resources,” she said.
“Always optimistic,” she said. “Voice means more than hearing the words, the listener must also be prepared to take action in response to that voice. The government will need to demonstrate that through its actions.”
However, she cautioned that structural change would not automatically yield greater student achievement.
“If the changes stay focused on organizational and structural changes the impact on student achievement will NOT happen,” she wrote.
“Change occurs as teachers build their capacity, principals lead the work and curriculum reflects the needs of the learners as they operate in our society. Too often structural changes stay the main focus and the really important work falls off the radar as change fatigue sets in.”
Campbell called for people to engage with their MLAs as the bill moves to the committee phase or to register to speak during consultations on the bill.
The province said it hopes to implement the new governance model by July 2022.