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SCHOOL BOARD - Busing and bullies
School board candidates are hearing about two big issues before Wednesday's vote

Sun, Oct 20, 2002

By Nick Martin

Busing and bullies -- those are the predominant issues candidates for the city's 52 school board seats in Wednesday's municipal election are hearing about as they trudge from door to door.

Wherever you find new houses being built in Winnipeg -- Whyte Ridge, Linden Ridge, Riverbend, Island Lakes, Eastmere -- you'll find incensed parents who thought their kids would be able to walk to a neighbourhood school within three or four blocks.

Instead, the Doer government has told them through the public schools finance board (PSFB) that capital funding will go toward fixing up older schools, not building new schools or expanding schools already bursting at the seams.

The PSFB has told school boards serving areas with new housing developments to find empty seats in other schools, often in older neighbourhoods and several kilometres away, across major roads.

The PSFB suddenly relented recently at crammed Henry G. Izatt Middle School in Whyte Ridge and agreed to add two classrooms. But that just delays the trustees' thankless task of picking the grades that will be shifted to empty desks in old Fort Garry. Whyte Ridge hasn't stopped growing, and houses are sprouting in Linden Ridge.

Some kids in Island Lakes -- where the 14-month-old community school is already beyond capacity -- are going outside the neighbourhood to Shamrock School in Southdale, and the situation is only going to get worse as more new homes are built, all designed for families with young children. Making the situation worse is the forced amalgamation imposed by former education minister Drew Caldwell. Parents in Island Lakes fear their kids will be bused to the empty seats in Lavallee School in south St. Vital, said Louis Riel school board candidate Joy Gowryluck.

"That does anger people in this community. People want their children to go to school in this community," she said. "The message the government seems to be missing: people move into these areas to provide a better environment for their children to grow up in."

Amalgamation has made it potentially possible for River East to finally squeeze Grade 9 students into high schools, where most educators agree they belong. The available seats, however, are in Transcona, and some children will be busing if the new River East Transcona board insists on moving Grade 9 into the new division's high schools.

Candidate Alice Neufeld-Klumper agrees with the notion in principle, but argued, "If kids are going to be facing a half-hour bus ride in the morning, that's not productive."

Caldwell was shuffled out of education last month and replaced by Ron Lemieux, who, as of Friday, was still not available to be interviewed by the Winnipeg Free Press.

In all six city school divisions, parents are telling candidates that they want more done about bullying and school violence. Pat Burgess, a veteran Winnipeg School Division principal, is running in Pembina Trails. "I listen to my kids' conversations: safe schools, kids getting bullied in the hallways," she said. "It goes back to your policies, and you make sure you support your staff."

The Manitoba Association of School Trustees is holding a major conference on safe schools Nov. 22 and 23.

Suzanne Adkins, a retired teacher running in WSD, said the policies are there, but trustees and superintendents have to stand behind teachers and bullied kids.

"We have to have a clear delineation that parents are responsible for their child's behaviour," Adkins said.

And, of course, there's money being discussed -- the property taxes that just keep going up and up and up.

Winnipeg school board incumbents will boast that they froze school taxes this past March. But that's because they lucked into a huge windfall of new businesses paying taxes for the first time, combined with increases in commercial assessment and higher assessment on homes in some south-end neighbourhoods.

WSD trustees actually increased spending by 7.7 per cent and then dug into surplus for another $3.5 million -- a spending hike that, if repeated, will wallop taxpayers should the assessment windfall turn out to be a one-shot deal.

Pembina Trails is trying to cope with the NDP's decision to phase out universities' property taxes by 2006, while Seven Oaks -- with Manitoba's highest school taxes -- forlornly tries to persuade the Doer government to toss all commercial taxes into one pot and divide it up evenly. Meanwhile, trustees will face the prospect of imposing even higher property taxes next March, unless the province suddenly does an about-face and funds education out of general revenues. Provincial funding last January amounted to a 1.3-per-cent increase when applied to the overall cost of education.

Wages and benefits account for six cents of every seven spent on education, and most Manitoba teachers' contracts expired June 30. Teachers in Saskatchewan just signed for 8.1 per cent over two years, and it's difficult to imagine teachers here asking for less.

Outside the city, there are 109 acclamations for 259 rural seats, four of which have no candidates registered. Brandon and several other boards have spirited races for seats, but too many have barely more candidates than seats. Portage la Prairie and Western school board in Morden have acclaimed their entire school boards.

Despite forced amalgamation and ministerial edicts eating away at school boards' power, about 125 people have offered themselves for the 52 school-board seats in Winnipeg available Wednesday, along with three seats in a rural-urban ward of Seine River School Division that includes Winnipeg's St. Norbert neighbourhood.

There are some candidates, unfortunately, who are ill-prepared and unfamiliar with issues and responsibilities facing school boards, and who repeat the mantra of accountability, fiscal responsibility, and quality education, without having any ideas or policies to offer beyond those cliches.

But there are many candidates who have researched public education and have strong and well thought-out ideas on how our $1.34-billion public-education system should be run. They're looking for your informed vote Wednesday.

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