Toxic political climate around K-3 initiative

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 28, 2015

The Brandon School Division is refusing to divert its own dollars to further fund the province’s kindergarten to Grade 3 class size initiative. (Brandon Sun)
The Brandon School Division is refusing to divert its own dollars to further fund the province’s kindergarten to Grade 3 class size initiative. (Brandon Sun)

If you are a Brandon School Division trustee, it is becoming harder every day to like the hand you have been dealt by the provincial government regarding the kindergarten to Grade 3 class size initiative.

We are far past the argument as to whether the idea works, or whether smaller class sizes benefit young children. It is pretty evident that more one-on-one time with the talented early years teachers the school division is blessed to have on staff is good for our children’s development, and that is a positive thing for the entire community.

The problem, however, is that while the community hopes to retain those quality teachers, it has a tough time funding the mandated changes under the K-3 initiative.

When the NDP first made the promise in 2011 to cap K-3 classrooms at 20 students by 2017, it also pledged to fully fund the initiative. Over the years, it would seem the “fully funded” promise comes with little to no actual supports from a provincial government desperately trying to implement it.

Word came last week after press time for this column that the province would not be allocating new teachers to the Brandon School Division because it appeared the division was adequately funded to provide the initiative. Education Minister Peter Bjornson’s office cited the fact Brandon trustees had exercised fiscal prudence while growing programming in presenting a minute tax hike to the residents of this city.

Forty of the 50 new positions designated for the program have already been diverted into Winnipeg and area school divisions where, coincidentally enough, the NDP government needs the lion’s share of their votes come election time.

The Brandon School Division says it alone would need close to 30 new teachers to meet the mandate by 2017 — a far cry from the 10 that remain provincewide, which realistically could end up in Winnipeg schools anyway.

This prompted board chair Mark Sefton to bite back at the province for underfunding the program, noting trustees were “ticked off” at the lack of support given for the initiative in Brandon schools.

Sefton’s response, coupled with trustee Kevan Sumner pointing out that the low tax increase came from a refocusing of priorities and a reduction of staff in other areas — as opposed to provincial investment — shows the government is offside.

The trustees are in place to balance the needs for this community, while the NDP government appears to be playing politics with education in an attempt to shore up leaking support in the provincial capital.

As I shared a few weeks back, the level of government posturing at play on the K-3 initiative is becoming tiresome. It is hard to say whether the latest news is a retaliation blow for previous choices by the board — such as the scaling back of 11 teachers — or it is merely vote protection in places where the NDP?needs support come election time.

Either way, it is beginning to smell of a group past its best-before date.

The K-3 initiative is not the only piece of the pie that doesn’t really add up for this community, however. If you take into account enrolment numbers and dedication of new funds for the construction of schools, Brandon again is left out in the dark.

Two other jurisdictions that have received new construction orders are the Louis Riel and Pembina Trails school divisions, coincidentally enough both in Winnipeg. The numbers show that Louis Riel has seen an almost seven per cent decline in enrolment, while Pembina Trails is closer to a 10 per cent downturn.

Contrasting numbers show Brandon School Division at a close to 14 per cent increase in enrolment during that same time frame.

It is hard to disagree with our trustees on this account. In striving to complete the mandate of their office, they should be equipped with the tools to adequately carry out that mandate — funding and the co-operation of government officials are part of that.

Plain and simple, the province should fund the necessary support to make programming like the K-3 initiative in the Brandon School Division successful, as well as examining the call for more space.

This should happen regardless of where the NDP’s voter base comes from, and government officials need to stop making political decisions that jeopardize the education of our youth.

For a government that claims to be a looking out for the best interests of all Manitobans, we are left to wonder if its mindset when it comes to votes and funding is different.

Is a vote in Winnipeg swing ridings more important than a vote past the Perimeter? You would be hard-pressed to say otherwise right now — and we as Manitobans deserve better than that.

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Shaun Cameron is a content contributor. A veteran of print, video and television, Shaun is a professional post-secondary employee by day, a filmmaker by night. Check out more of Shaun's work in the menu bar above.

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Shaun Cameron has worked in media for close to two decades. His work has been featured in print, internet, video, radio and television publications. A proud father of two, Shaun lives in Brandon, Manitoba with his wife Karol.

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