Are fewer school boards an answer to what ails education in Manitoba?

By | February 11, 2019

All across Canada  — and especially out east — provincial governments have spent the past two decades slashing the number of elected school boards or eliminating them outright. Now Manitoba is poised to join the fray.

Last month, Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conserbtaive government announced a review of the number of school boards in Manitoba, with an eye toward the second rounding of amalgamation in this province in 19 years. 

“I look around at other provinces, and I know there’s been effort to have less school divisions. I think we have 290 school trustees involved with running our divisions and our schools. I need to be convinced that’s the right number,” Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said last month when he announced a provincial education review that would “tackle the issue of school divisions and potential consolidation.”

In 2015, Prince Edward Island dissolved its English-language school board and replaced it with a public-schools branch governed by provincial appointees. 

Nova Scotia made a similar move in 2018, when its government dissolved six regional English-language school boards and replaced them with an advisory council appointed by the education minister.

This followed a sweeping review of education that wasn’t expected to recommend the dissolution of any boards in the land of lobster and winter squalls.

Amalgamation has proven to be a costly and divisive experiment that has consumed time and resources which could have gone toward meaningful education reform.– Dennis Owens, Frontier Centre for Public Policy, in 2005

In Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s now one English school board to serve a province of 526,000 people. In Quebec, the provincial government is preparing to eliminate school boards despite opposition from the anglophone minority.

The outright abolition of school boards may seem foreign to the political culture in Manitoba, the last province in Canada where independent, elected school boards retain the power to raise revenue through property taxes.

But this province is now reviewing the number of boards that operate in Manitoba, with an eye to reducing their number through amalgamation.

On Jan. 23, Goertzen created a commission to look at ways to improve Manitoba’s education system with the stated goal of ensuring students learn more and achieve more.

Unlike some of his counterparts in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, this education minister isn’t planning to abolish school boards. 

But Goertzen said he want his commission to figure out who ought to be accountable for lousy provincial test scores.

“In the short time that I’ve been education minister, I do get frustrated when I meet with school divisions. I ask the question about results and who’s responsible for improving results, and I usually get the same answer: ‘Well, we’re all responsible,'” Goertzen said. “If we’re all responsible, then really nobody is responsible.”

Another round of whittling down

The notion Manitoba has too many school boards and too many school trustees is hardly new. It’s also not an idea espoused solely by Progressive Conservative governments.

In 2001, when Gary Doer’s NDP government was still young and loaded with political capital, the province reduced the number of school boards from 54 to 37.

The ostensible goal was to improve the efficiency of school-board governance and administration. The theory was, too many small boards were duplicating administrative functions and that was diverting cash away from actual education.

In practice, this round of amalgamation met with middling to poor reviews, including from the conservative Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

A 2005 analysis by the right-wing think tank concluded amalgamation led to increased overall spending by Manitoba school boards, partly because wages were harmonized across all school divisions.

“In the absence of any evidence that larger school divisions are more cost-effective than smaller school divisions, one wonders why the province went ahead with the school board amalgamations in the first place,” analyst Dennis Owens wrote at the time. 

“Regardless of the reasons for this decision, the fact remains that amalgamation has proven to be a costly and divisive experiment that has consumed time and resources which could have gone toward meaningful education reform.”

New government, similar plan

In his analysis, Owens criticized the Doer NDP government and its education minister, Drew Caldwell, for forcing amalgamation upon mostly rural school boards.

Fourteen years later, Manitoba school trustees and their allies still cite this Frontier Centre report as they claim the Progressive Conservative government is about to make the same mistake.

“We don’t need school boards to be large in order to educate kids,” said John Wiens, dean emeritus and senior scholar at the University of Manitoba’s faculty of education.

He said 2001 amalgamations imposed by the NDP did nothing for Manitoba schools or students and added there would be no financial or educational benefit to another round under the Tories.

“In my view, politicians don’t believe they have anything to lose from this and they look like they’re doing something,” Wiens said. “The province is getting a good deal, both from the school divisions and the school trustees.”

Does bigger mean better?

In Wiens’ view, there are a number of drawbacks to larger school boards. For starters, schools wind up located further away from the people who make decisions about what happens within them, he said.

Streamlined doesn’t necessarily mean improved outcomes.– John Wiens, U of M faculty of education

“You can’t see Swan River from Broadway. If you want people in your area to have a voice, you don’t get rid of things like school boards or municipal councils,” he said.

Wiens also said a reduction in school boards amounts to diminishing democracy. “We have fewer places where people have a say in governing,” he said.

Alan Campbell, the new president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, said the only reason to reduce the number of school boards is to reduce the power of those boards.

“Obviously, if you want to centralize decision making and you want to take decision making away from the local level and centralize it, say on Broadway and [in] Winnipeg, well then of course, in the name of efficiency of decision making then doing way with school boards would make things more streamlined,” Campbell said.

“But streamlined doesn’t necessarily mean improved outcomes.”

Like Wiens, Campbell fears another round of amalgamation with reduce the robustness of local democracy in Manitoba.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean better transparency or better accountability in terms of expenditure of tax dollars. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the individual Manitoban has a say in how public money is spent on public education,” he said.

“It’s disappointing that a review that is intended to improve outcomes has school board amalgamation on the table as somehow being able to contribute to improved outcomes, as though a reduction in community voice can somehow also lead to an improvement in outcome.”

Voters bored of board elections

All this talk of about the importance of school boards to local democracy, however, is undermined by an inconvenient truth: Many Manitoba voters pay little attention to school boards, even at election time

So few Manitobans are engaged in the school-board level of democracy, there’s little competition to sit on school boards. In the 2018 province-wide elections, almost half of Manitoba trustees won their seats by default because nobody ran against them.

Of  287 seats up for grabs in the province, 132 went uncontested, allowing the only registered candidate to win by acclamation. And in six Manitoba school divisions, an entire slate of candidates ran unopposed and won by acclamation.

They’re a bunch of toadies, that’s what they are.– Paul Bennett, Halifax education analyst

The low rate of political engagement makes it fair to question the importance of school boards to ordinary voters, many of whom would struggle to name a sitting school trustee.

The disconnection between school boards and the populace at large is not just the result of school divisions being too large, argues Paul Bennett, a Halifax education analyst who runs a firm called Schoolhouse Consulting.

Bennett argues school boards across Canada are disconnected from the people they’re supposed to represent because trustees acquiesce to superintendents and other administrators.

“They’re a bunch of toadies, that’s what they are, for the administration,” said Bennett, who sees amalgamation as a prelude to the eventual elimination of school boards in Manitoba, much the same way they were eliminated in P.E.I. and Nova Scotia.

Proxy skirmish in a larger labour battle?

Back in Manitoba, school boards association president Alan Campbell rejects the notion school boards have made themselves irrelevant.

He said the low interest in school-board elections is evidence voters are happy with Manitoba schools.

“There isn’t a big urge to replace the existing school board trustees because there’s no clear indication that they aren’t doing their job, or that the system somehow isn’t functioning properly,” he said.

Fiscal conservatives would take issue with that statement, as spending by school divisions has exceeded inflation almost every year since the last round of amalgamation.

In and of itself, another round of school-board amalgamations would save just as little for the province in 2020 as it did in 2001, said Rodney Clifton, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and the Frontier Centre’s senior research fellow.

 “I think it’s the equivalent of moving deck chairs around on the Titanic,” said the conservative academic.

Clifton nonetheless ascribed a financial motive to the Progressive Conservative government’s move: The elimination of small, rural school boards could weaken the negotiating power of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, the union representing more than 15,000 educators in this province.

In theory, small school boards serve as softer targets for collective bargaining agreements favourable to the union side. Eliminating those targets would then remove the ability to use those deals as benchmarks for other, larger school boards.

If that is Goertzen’s rationale, he’s keeping his cards close to his chest. The education minister’s office declined CBC News requests for comment.

The minister’s commission on education is supposed to gather public opinion this year and issue a final report in March 2020.

That’s when Manitobans will learn whether there will be a cull on school divisions — and how far that cull will go.