The president of the Manitoba School Boards Association (MSBA) wasn't surprised to hear the province's education review will examine whether to merge school divisions or get rid of them entirely.
Alan Campbell says he's been in regular conversation with current Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen and former minister Ian Wishart ever since rumours of a review started nearly two years ago.
"They've been up front with us about the prospect that all things are on the table, so we do appreciate that," noted Campbell.
As for the association's official position on the review, Campbell says MSBA members feel it can't be successful in terms of improved outcomes, sustainability or accountability - all priorities highlighted by government in this review - if individual public and community voice is diminished through the reduction or abolishment of local school boards.
"The only way for any of those things to be achieved is to ensure the voice of Manitobans is heard and is maintained as part of the day-to-day operation of public education in this province," he explained. "And the only way to do that is to ensure that the voice of school boards is protected and is maintained."
According to the MSBA, at stake is the ability for the individual Manitoban to have a voice in how their local schools are operated.
"In a lot of our rural Manitoba towns and villages the local school doubles as the community centre, the auditorium. It doubles as mental health services, addiction services, and newcomer services, and the reason the local school does all of that is because the local school board has an ear to the ground and they understand what is needed in those communities," said Campbell. "The prospect of taking the role of the school board and diminishing it without any clear benefits is extremely problematic."
Campbell adds if government wants to have a meaningful conversation about student outcomes, then it should be prepared to talk about all of the contributing factors that lead to those results, including local school boards that provide a number of social services beyond education.
"When you look at the prospect of students who are in CFS (Child and Family Services) care, who are dealing with mental health crises, who are coming to school in the morning hungry because they didn't have breakfast, those are the types of things that are being remedied at the school level," he explained. "All of those different contexts need to be taken into consideration...(including) the resources that teachers are being provided and the mindset that students are coming to their classrooms with. We want to make sure all of those are considered in a meaningful way if we want to make sure that this review is actually going to lead to meaningful change."
Overall, Campbell says the MSBA was pleased to hear that public education in Manitoba will be reviewed, noting members have been calling for an examination for some time. He was however surprised to hear the review would not include a look at how education is funded.
Meantime, school boards have either started to engage with local ratepayers, or will begin consultations shortly, on what matters to them concerning public education in Manitoba.
"If they are comfortable with the prospect that decision-making on public education is going to be centralized or regionalized, then they need to express that," said Campbell. "But if they are concerned about the prospect of losing local voice and how local schools are funded, staffed, managed, and what resources are available to families of all socio-demographics, then they need to make sure the review knows those concerns as well."
As for the MSBA, Campbell says conversations will be had at the provincial level and preparations have begun for how the association can have continued dialogue with the commissioners of the review.
"The MSBA wants to ensure that Manitobans have a strong voice in this process and that the commissioners hear loud and clear that Manitobans expect to be heard in the review and in the ongoing delivery of public education through their locally elected school boards," he added.