Right in the centre - Good, better and best


By Ken Waddell

Neepawa Banner & Press

In the background to the pre-occupation with COVID-19, life is going on. Crops are being seeded, cattle go to market, packing plants thankfully keep producing meat. The food trucks run and people are busy as beavers building and fixing stuff.

Even further in the background, the wheels of government keep slowly rolling and that is true with changes to the department of education. Our papers have received a lot feedback about the province’s plan to do away with school boards, replace them with parent councils and introduce a host of reforms to the education system.

It’s interesting, as it is with most legislation, that the majority of people directly and indirectly involved with education say that there needs to be change. On that there is agreement. But how the change comes about is not agreed upon. Many believe that educational outcomes need to improve in some areas of learning, with some schools and with some students. That is very true. It’s also true that in some areas of learning, some schools and some are students doing very well. It would appear that change isn’t needed in every case, but rather best practises be adopted.

There is a general agreement that property taxes aren’t the best way to fund education, either. The system is unfair, out-dated and has always been a matter of contention. The fact that a people-based service is based on land taxes seems silly. Land based services, such as sewer, water, roads, etc. seem better based on land taxes, but education and health care, it would seem, might be better funded out of general revenue. It would seem that sales taxes or income taxes should fund people oriented services, such as health and education.

The biggest point of contention is the elimination of school boards and the creation of a province-wide authority to fund schools. It’s true that a small percentage of education funding is generated locally and so the actual clout of local school boards doesn’t seem to be as significant as it once was decades ago. It’s also true that some school divisions have trouble filling school board positions come election time.

However, the local input, local control and local caring could easily become lost if school boards are gone. We all know how badly regional control of health care went. After a number of boundary and name changes over 20 plus years, health care is now basically run by a central bureaucracy. Forced consolidation of municipalities is still being fought over and it has had mixed reviews.

To think that one large central authority can run all our schools across a wide range of geography, amongst huge differences in culture and economic well-being is a bit of pipe dream. The government says parent councils will save the day and they might. I am skeptical. If school boards have trouble getting people to run for paid office, how much more trouble will it be to get parents to sit on a council for little or no compensation?

Hopefully, the government will look to the better run local school divisions for how to be efficient and effective. There are the statistics out there for all to see. It’s called the FRAME Report and can be found online here:  edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/finance/frame_report/.

It explains how much divisions spend and where. The contents are pretty stark when you look at cost per student and admin costs from one division to another. Hopefully, the government will interview  lots of people and find out how and why some students, some divisions and some administrators do so much better than others. There are lessons to be learned, so hopefully, it will all work out well.

And, similar to RHAs and municipalities, some communities could lose some services. To use a time-worn example, when the local curling rink can’t get enough teams to pay the operating costs, the curling rink closes down. Some communities simply don’t have enough students to sustain a school and that is a sad and tough problem to be faced. In an argument against school closures, some small schools get the best efficiency and education results, so it will all take a close examination to find the best path forward.

I know we won’t be going back to the one-room school house, but let’s not forget how good an education some people got in the one-room schools. Just ask my wife, who speaks proudly of her first eight years at a little school named Scarth. She received a great education there and it has stood her in a good position.

Bigger isn’t always better, smaller isn’t always better. Better is better and we need to be flexible enough to enable better to happen.