Manitoba government plans to eliminate elected school boards in major overhaul of education

·5 min read
The Manitoba government plans to eliminate elected school boards, under a bill now in second reading before the legislature. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC - image credit)
The Manitoba government plans to eliminate elected school boards, under a bill now in second reading before the legislature. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC - image credit)

A massive overhaul of Manitoba's education system will concentrate almost all of the province's elected school boards and hand much of the decision-making power to a new authority appointed by the province.

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government unveiled the full contents of a bill introduced last November that would replace the province's 37 English-language school divisions with one provincial education authority.

The bill would create local community school councils, with volunteer executives including the parents of students, to advise individual schools.

The changes outlined in the province's plans grew out of a comprehensive review on kindergarten to Grade 12 education, launched in 2019, which delivered a report to the government in March 2020. The province delayed the release of that report due to COVID-19.

"It is no surprise to Manitobans that our system needed to change, but COVID forced us to recognize our system's huge disparities," said Education Minister Cliff Cullen during a news conference Monday.

The commission was led by Avis Glaze, who was hired by Nova Scotia to review its education system and recommended eliminating elected school boards and other sweeping changes.

Out of the provinces, Manitoba spends among the most on education, "but sees our students achieve some of the lowest results," Cullen said.

Manitoba ranks second-last in reading skills, and last in math.

The province has the highest number of school divisions per capita in Canada, and the changes are aimed at improving efficiencies and outcomes for students. The changes are expected to save up to $40 million, which the province says will be redirected to classroom learning.

Bill 64, the Education Act, would replace three existing pieces of legislation governing education in Manitoba. The bill is currently in its second reading in the legislation.

The first reading of the bill, late last year, only provided its title.

For the time being, the province insists students and parents will not see any immediate changes in their schools. Children will continue going to their schools and the curriculum will remain the same for this year.

Centralized decision-making

The new provincial education authority is expected to be in place in time for the 2022 school year. It will be mainly composed of government appointees.

Once established, it will handle all collective bargaining in the province, as well as shared services such as procurement and remote learning. It will also be responsible for delivering K-12 education.

The authority will receive advice from a new provincial advisory council, which will include representatives from each of the new 15 regional catchment areas. These new regions will have none of the legislative and taxation powers of school divisions.

"Those 15 regions are not school boards as you would think. They're just geographical areas," Cullen said.

All of Winnipeg's six school divisions, for example, would merge into a single region.

The Manitoba School Boards Association has campaigned to keep elected school boards, saying they are essential to keeping the school system connected to communities.

"Today is a really sad day for Manitoba," president Alan Campbell said.

"Democracy has taken a real hit — and public education stands to as well, because with democracy going out the window, so does accountability."

The new oversight bodies will be made up of appointed members and cover larger territory than the locally elected school boards, Campbell argues, which could result in less direct communication with, and accountability to, each community. He likened it to how Manitoba's regional health authority boards operate.

The union representing education support staff opposes the changes, arguing they will result in less local control over education.

"School support staff are worried that such a major overhaul will result in cuts to education, will leave our most vulnerable students and parents with fewer resources, and even less ability to raise their concerns and needs," said Lee McLeod, regional director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in a statement.

WATCH | Manitoba releases K-12 education review:

Although much of the decision-making will be centralized in the provincial education authority, Cullen says parents will have greater input in how their local schools operate.

Each school will have a community council made up of parents of students.

The new councils' roles have not been finalized, but could include assessing the effectiveness of programming at the school, analyzing student achievement and learning outcomes and proposing capital construction projects and budgets.

"So I would say the reality is moving forward under this new governance model, parents will have more say at the local school level," Cullen said.

The bill would also remove principals and vice-principals from the teachers' union.

'So many disparities'

The plan includes reducing funding from education property taxes, starting in 2023.

"In the not-too-distant future we're looking at removing the ability of the local school boards to provide taxation, so we're taking that role away from the local trustees," Cullen said.

The current system of relying on property taxes leads to differences in education outcomes depending on where students live, Cullen said.

"We have so many disparities and inequalities across the province. School divisions that have the ability to raise funds [through property taxes] raise those funds. And other areas and other school divisions don't have that opportunity to raise as much funds," he said.

Consultations with stakeholders are expected to begin in April and last until June, with an implementation plan ready by the fall of 2021.