Archive for February, 2008

Eight steps toward solving school funding problems

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

By Ken Waddell
The Banner

For the past 40 years, Manitoba schools have been used and abused at will by governments and various interest groups.

Many well-intentioned causes have been funnelled through the schools to gain traction. The recycling movement, the anti-smoking movement and a whole rash of what might be dubbed “politically correct” causes have had their day in the classroom. Many continue to find time slots in the official or unofficial school agenda.

In addition to having to deal with every cause imaginable, teachers and the school system have had to absorb the strain of what used to be called main streaming. It has had a couple of newer fancier names since but basically main streaming means that every child, no matter how abled, either physically or mentally will graduate from Grade 12. The programs adapted so that every child will graduate with a High School diploma. What level of academic merit can be attached to some of those diplomas is open to question.

Canada’s cultural mosaic has been stretched by immigration to a point where a few years ago it was claimed that in schools at Surrey, BC, there were as many as 100 languages spoken in the hallways.

While that may have been an exaggeration, it’s not uncommon to have many different languages and cultural backgrounds in any given school.

All of the above add up to making teaching and administering a much tougher job than most people realize. Besides it’s easier to ignore realities and assume that whenever an issues comes up from sex education to anti-smoking to teaching any newest and greatest trend that “the schools will do it.”

Listen to any talk show radio program and it isn’t long before any problem is discussed that the solution is “more education.” By inference that means “the schools will do it.”
Considering all the pressures listed above plus the aging school infrastructure, higher salary costs and the higher cost of just about everything that schools have to purchase the recent announcement by Manitoba Education Minister Peter Bjornson was considered a cruel joke by school officials.

Bjornson said either school division hold the line on taxes or they won’t get any “extra” funding from the province.

Now that’s pretty arrogant but then Peter Bjornson, perhaps unjustifiably, always has come across as an arrogant minister. His latest move fits his presumed personality profile.

For Bjornson to tell school divisions what they must do is very arrogant. Although many will agree that school taxes seem to be too high, one would think that the local school board elections would address that topic. It isn’t that there’s a long parade of people lining up to be school trustees. It isn’t that there’s a huge tax revolt in Manitoba. Perhaps that’s because the current government has convinced everybody that there’s no use in fighting their mantle of mediocrity they have cast over us all. Or perhaps there’s simply no effective opposition.

There certainly hasn’t been any new ideas for a long time on education funding and administration. The last major effort was the Norrie Commission in the 1990s, a report commissioned by Gary Filmon’s PC Manitoba party on school boundary reviews. It was one of the best reports to ever come out of government but it was shelved. It must have made too much sense.

With the province’s latest move, it has pushed some groups to suggest that the school boards are irrelevant. In fact, some student groups are even suggesting that way too much is spent on administration.

Eight potential solutions are listed below:

1. Fund every student in Manitoba by issuing vouchers to parents or guardians so that students can attend the registered school of their choice, be it public or private as long as they are a registered school.

2. Disband school divisions and set up legislation for each individual school to elect a school board of 5-7 people depending on the size of the school. Let the board hire a principal and let the principal hire all the rest of the staff.

3. Set in place a plan to eliminate school taxes on residential and farm property.

4. Establish a small task force to study the feasibility and advisability of eliminating school taxes on commercial property. For examples, exempt commercial property if it is owned by a company that files its income taxes in Manitoba.

5. Work with the Manitoba Teachers’ Society on a method to measure academic achievement and excellence.

6. Encourage Universities and Community Colleges to establish or expand entrance exams.

7. Encourage schools to accept donations from individuals, from companies and foundations for capital improvements and for donations to school foundations where the interest on the foundation investment can be used for operating funds.

8. Negotiate with the federal government for funding transfers so that all First Nations schools come under provincial jurisdiction. Education is constitutionally a provincial responsibility and by and large First Nations Schools fall far behind provincial school standards. If First Nations people are to get a fair start and if First Nations people are going to be a large part of our work force, the schools on many reserves need to be seriously upgraded.

Not every one will agree with the above eight points but at least they are things we should be discussing. To have a good, honest and open discussion would be a lot better than having an arrogant sounding education minister drag out stale tax carrots and pretend to call it leadership. A good debate about where we want to be and where we should be with education would be healthy for Manitoba, for our students and our future.

Few politicians have the courage to take even attempt a debate or discussion. Fewer still will actually take a stand. Perhaps we can teach more about debating in our schools. Oh,sorry, I forgot, they are already overloaded.

Three big lies

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Citizens should be able to depend on two things.
1. Honesty from their politicians.
2. The news media keeping politicians honest.
Manitoba’s two leading politicians, Premier Gary Doer and Finance Minister Greg Sellinger should know better than to be dishonest and the media should have the courage to call them on it when they don’t tell the truth. Manitobans have every right to be disappointed as there’s three big lies that have been told. Those lies have been used to prop up the Manitoba NDP party for many years and few media outlets have called Doer and Sellinger to task on those issues.

Big lie number 1.
The 1990s were tough times in Manitoba because the PC Manitoba party headed by Gary Filmon made huge cuts in spending.

The truth: The Gary Filmon Conservatives inherited a double whammy situation. The previous NDP Pawley government had spent themselves silly and the PCs had to rein in spending. The second part of the problem, and the bigger part, was that the federal Liberals under Prime Minister Chretien and Finance Minister Paul Martin decided the time had come to balance the federal budget and they implemented major cuts in transfer payments to the provinces.
We have to remember that Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau ( 1970s and early 80s) had taken the country into massive debt with nearly 15 years of deficit spending. That was followed up by the Brian Mulroney government ( mid-80s and early 90s) who tried to rein in spending and in desperation set up the hated GST to try to overcome the deficit.
More background information shows that deficit spending was finally accepted as a bad thing because of the relentless efforts of Reform party leader Preston Manning. Remember Manning’s speech line, “Get your fiscal house in order.” Manning’s efforts were matched and paralleled by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and by the now retired Deputy Minister of Finance who convinced Paul Martin that federal government deficits had to go.
Conclusion: Times were tough in Manitoba in the 1990s but it had little to do with the PC Manitoba party lead by Gary Filmon.

Big Lie number 2:
The Manitoba Tories fired a 1000 nurses. Actually, Gary Doer has been known to stretch that lie to 1500 nurses when he’s in full verbal flight in the Manitoba legislature.

The truth: In the 1990s, the PC Filmon government set up the Regional Health Authority system. Until then the nurses and the Manitoba Nurses Union had their collective agreements with the local hospitals and care homes. When most of the hospitals and care homes were brought under the RHA system, the agreements couldn’t be transferred so the nurses contracts had to be ended at the end of a shift and re-established under collective agreements with the appropriate RHA at the beginning of the next shift. That process was carried out over and over again as successive facilities were absorbed by the RHAs
Conclusion: No nurses were fired, few if any positions were eliminated.

Big Lie number 3
The Province of Manitoba’s debt is only $12 billion.

The truth:
Manitoba’s debt is actually $20 billion but by using a convoluted and nonsensical explanation Finance Minister Greg Sellinger says government owned assets somehow offset the province’s debt and so we really only have net debt of $12 billion.
Sellinger even has had the audacity to publicly suggest by way of explanation that if a homeowner owns a $100,000 house and has a $110,000 mortgage that the homeowner only has a net debt of $10,000. Try telling that to your banker!

Conclusion: Sellinger has mislead Manitobans about the provincial debt.

Overall conclusion: Many media people need to hang their heads in shame when they don’t hold politicians to the truth.

The 4 Fs will change us all

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Nearly every rural Manitoban knows the mean of 4-H.
It stands for Canada’s nearly 100 year old rural youth program and the Hs stand for Head, Heart, Hands and Health.
Few people might guess what the 4Fs are but once you find out you will never forget.
And that’s a good thing because the 4 Fs are about to change rural Manitoba, rural Canada and the whole face of rural living world wide.
In discussion with a grains policy expert last week we came up with the 4Fs.
In days gone by, agricultural land has been called upon to produce Food and Feed. Food for human consumption and Feed for livestock that in turn becomes human food in many cases.
For the first time in a long time the farm land base is being called upon to produce the third – namely Fuel. With biodiesel plants like the new ADM plant in North Dakota now on line and producing the impact on canola prices has been huge. With oil at $100 per barrel the impetus for biodiesel is huge.
Strangely enough the ADM plant isn’t shipping its product to domestic markets. A company rep at Brandon’s Ag Days said the US domestic market isn’t ready to pay the price. The biodiesel is being shipped by rail to the Gulf of Mexico, loaded on tanker ships and sent to foreign markets, mostly in Europe.
At the top of the previous paragraph I said “first time in a long time” because agriculture used to produce most of it’s own fuel for field power in the form of hay and oats and much of the power for steam engines came from burning straw. Most of the home heating came from home grown wood.
Several Manitoba biodiesel plants are in the construction or planning stages. It remains to be seen whether the fuel goes local or for export. It will be interesting to see what happens.
But now there’s a fourth “F” and that’s Fibre. Apparently companies like Toyota are investing a lot of research money into biodegradable fibre for car parts. Seems the demand for “green” product, stuff that will break down in a biological fashion when it’s recycled is becoming quite large. It should also be noted that fibre used to be farm produced a lot more than it is now. In Hungary, my wife’s grandmother gathered and wove hemp fibre to make everything from bedding to baking cloths but that was long time ago.
So instead of agricultural land being called upon to supply two Fs, Food and Feed, it’s now being called on again to produce Fuel and Fibre.
So Manitoba is in a strange position. The 4Fs are about to change Manitoba. Farm land prices are going to go up. Grain demand is already up. Cattle, hog and poultry feed costs are under tremendous upward pressure.
What do we do?
As was suggested to some young farmers last week, be optimistic but be cautiously optimistic. This is a Sunrize Group internet solution (204)226-2247