• Jim Mosher

Evergreen trustees hit the road to stress importance of local voice, choice

Evergreen School Division trustees Robert Arnason and Gladys Kohler raised concerns about potential impacts of a comprehensive review of the K-12 education system now under way.

The province’s review of the Kindergarten to Grade 12 public education system will change the way school divisions, the public and citizens interact with a system that its critics believe has become cumbersome and unresponsive.

There are dire consequences to wholesale changes, including loss of local autonomy and the impacts of potential amalgamations, Evergreen trustees suggested to councils in Gimli and Winnipeg Beach last week.

Two Gimli trustees representing the Evergreen School Division appeared as a delegation to Gimli council April 24. Trustees Robert Arnason and Gladys Kohler

asked Gimli council to consider the broad guidelines the education review commission will consider, among them the number of school divisions, the role of school boards, present taxation and local decision-making.

The wide-ranging mandate of the commission, which is expected to deliver its final report in February 2020, leaves open the door to speculation about the recommendations that may reframe, transform and-or improve the public system.

“We are not against the review,” Arnason stressed during his opening remarks. “I think it’s a very healthy thing to do. But we do have concerns on the governance piece. We have to keep on having our local voice.”

Added Kohler, “Currently, we have local voice and local choice. We have the ability to raise revenue locally at the board, which has directed funds to meet our students’ needs.”

She highlighted the local initiatives and programs the Evergreen board has approved, ranging from the introduction of Junior Kindergarten to investment in band and music programs to establishing smaller class sizes to a successful mature student program, among others.

“Junior Kindergarten, for instance, is funded locally and provided as a local decision of your school board,” Kohler said, adding there is no provincial requirement that JK be provided nor any financial support from the province for the initiative. “Losing this program would affect negatively the families of the about 100 students in JK.”

Moving on, Arnason focused on the potential effects of forced amalgamation, something that, he suggested, will not save money. “In fact, history shows it results in increased costs,” he said. “And our administration costs at Evergreen are already low, especially in comparison to other sectors.”

He noted that admin costs have recently been reduced by 15 per cent while trustee indemnities have also been lowered. As well, wages for staff have been frozen.

“So amalgamation in Evergreen could lead to significantly higher taxes,” he said. “Our current budget has a negligible increase to local taxpayers — $6 a year or 50¢ per month on a $200,000 home. Our fear is with amalgamation we could become a great big area and we fear you lose your local voice and choice.”

Amalgamation would also involve centralized decision-making. “When has centralized decision making ever worked for you?” Kohler said. “Centralizing decision-making would lead to negative outcomes for rural communities. A reduction in the number of school divisions means an increase in size. It means it will be difficult to [bring forward] local decisions. It means the possibility of jobs moving to other areas. The operations and school division offices could be moved.”

Kohler concluded: “We want to keep local jobs in our communities and continue to make decisions for our schools; rather than follow directives that come from Broadway.” She added that Evergreen is the second largest employer in the area. “Decision-making from Broadway may not necessarily reflect local community needs.”

Gimli Mayor Lynn Greenberg said Evergreen is already “quite large”.

“Amalgamating with somebody else, now it’s twice as big,” the mayor said. “And bigger is not always better. Even with [amalgamation of] the town and the RM of Gimli, it hasn’t saved any money. But it’s working okay.”

Greenberg asked what kind of support the division is looking for.

“You’re our elected officials,” the mayor said. “We trust you when you come forward like this. We could make a resolution [of support], if you want to send it on to senior government.”

“It would be greatly appreciated,” said trustee Kohler.

Coun. Thora Palson said of Evergreen and local decision-making: “It’s definitely something we don’t want to lose.”

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