The spectre of amalgamation loomed over the Manitoba School Boards Association convention on Friday, as trustees were warned their voices could soon be silenced.
The annual convention was met with some anxiety on its second and final day, under the context of a provincial government flirting with the first round of school board amalgamation since 2002.
Are fewer school boards an answer to what ails education in Manitoba?
“The threat is there that somebody might come and take away your community’s voice,” warned Josh Watt, executive director of the association.
“I do hope … we will rise to the occasion and say who are our friends, who are our allies, who can help us to stand in front of that threat and make sure that our voice will remain viable.”
In open discussions and in the subtext of speeches, the topic of amalgamation or even the outright elimination of Manitoba’s school boards was top-of-mind during the two-day convention at the Delta Hotel in downtown Winnipeg.
This time next year, trustees will have absorbed the findings of a comprehensive review of the public school system, scheduled to be released next February, which will consider the “issue of school divisions and potential consolidation,” Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen explained at a news conference in January.
Vitality of small towns at risk: trustee
The thought of amalgamation has at least one trustee fretting about the future of shrinking rural communities.
“If everything is being controlled out of the major centres, I am worried about what that means,” said Jim Cooper, board chair at Lakeshore School Division, based in Eriksdale, after a closed-door meeting with Goertzen.
Small schools, Cooper said, are the hubs of small communities, and without them these outposts of prairie life may wither away. He’s concerned decision-makers from far away will not understand.
“I’m worried about that.”
Earlier this year, Goertzen said he had to be convinced the 290 trustees running Manitoba’s school divisions are even necessary.
The comment came as other provinces either consolidate or eliminate the number of elected school boards under their jurisdiction.
A hand-picked commission is tapped in Manitoba with finding ways to fix a school system that’s produced the worst scores in reading, science and math in the country.
Nobody sees amalgamation as an inevitability, said Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, but it doesn’t mean trustees aren’t feeling uneasy.
“The unknown is a cause for fear, anxiety because we know that we have … a higher level of local representation in this province than remains in any other part of the country,” said Campbell, explaining that trustees are open to a review being conducted.
He said board chairs were told numerous times at a closed-door meeting with Goertzen that the province did not form this commission under the presumption that fewer school boards is the answer.
He believes Goertzen is telling the truth.
‘Take him at his word’
“In order for me to get out of bed every morning and fight for a local voice and local choice and the role of school boards, I have to take him at his word,” Campbell said.
Theresa Bergson, a trustee in the Seine River School Division southeast of Winnipeg, says different schools have different requirements.
“Those needs can be exceptionally different,” she said, referring to urban and northern children. “I’m really hoping they take that into consideration, instead of just looking at the numbers and the formulas because children are not numbers and formulas,” she said.
The review can bring about positives, said Charlene Geiler, board chair of the Red River School Division south of Winnipeg. She sometimes wonders if her children are learning everything they should.
She hopes local perspectives are heard loud and clear through the consultation process.
“I know a lot of people think that they’ve already made all their decisions, but I think they’re willing to listen,” she said. “I hope they are.”