AGM Of Thrones

Blood runs hot at YQR’s yearly school meet

by Paul Dechene

School Board AGM

The highlight, for me, of the Jan. 28 Public School Board annual general meeting came during the question period when someone took to the mike to speak in favour of the provincial government’s plan to build three schools in Regina using a Public Private Partnership model.

“I was never particularly involved at the municipal level politically at all until the P3 referendum we had a few months ago last year, and make no mistake, that question wasn’t about a waste water treatment plant,” said the speaker. “That question was about the concept of P3s in general. When the people of Regina voted in favour of the P3 last year they weren’t voting in favour of a waste water treatment plant, they were voting in favour of an economic model and a construction model.”

That’s funny. I seem to remember a whole lot of billboards that suggested there was a certain $58.5 million “investment” from the federal government that was contingent on Regina going with a P3 for the waste water plant. And I remember how that might have had some small influence on the outcome of that referendum.

I also note that there is no such money coming to support the province’s P3 school plan. So maybe the context for new schools is different — in about 58.5 million ways — and worth another look?

Just a thought.

But it was fun to get to watch as one side of the P3 debate concocted a specious narrative it can deploy to shut down debate and hurry future P3s through to approval. And don’t be mistaken. It was an actual “side” of the debate doing this. Turns out the speaker of the quote above was Sean Wilson, the communications officer on the Saskatchewan Party Youth executive board.

And he wasn’t the only person to turn out to the school board AGM with some kind of affiliation. I recognized CUPE members and NDP members. There were teachers, parents and administrators. Some of the people behind Regina Water Watch’s failed campaign to stop the waste water P3 were there. And of course Real Renewal — the parent group who’ve been fighting school closures — were there too.

All they needed were banners with which to declare their various loyalties — hounds, dragons, dire wolves — and the AGM could almost pass for a rehearsal of a community theatre performance of Game Of Thrones: The Musical.

I guess that’s what happens when you have so many controversial issues hanging over the public school system and little forthcoming in response — beyond platitudes, that is.

Tensions ran high and things started to feel like a battle.

On P3 schools, the attendees managed to pass two motions by narrow margins. One called on the school board to reconfirm their commitment to consultation and transparency. The other directed the board to get answers from the provincial government on a series of questions: What are the differences in cost between a traditional and P3 school? Who will own and maintain the schools? Will schools need permission from the private partners to make modifications such as classroom improvements? Those sorts of things.

And while there were just enough votes from the audience to get that by, and even though the motion was nearly identical to one recently passed by the Saskatoon Public School Board, it succeeded in Regina over the protests of board chair Katherine Gagne.

“We have had numerous meetings with the government about this. There is no decision made. They’re in the process of doing their due diligence around P3s and all of [your] questions [are] being asked. We’re seeking answers,” she explained to the crowd. “If you’re asking me if I support the motion? I see no need to support the motion because it’s already business in progress.”

It may be. But if the board sticks to the motion as passed, they’ll now have to set up community meetings to share the information they recover.

Later, Cathedral residents hoping to prevent the closure or demolition of Connaught School attempted to pass a motion asking the board allow them access to the building for eight hours so that they could bring in a team of heritage engineers to analyze the building’s condition. Apparently, only visual inspections have been carried out on the 100-year-old school and the group has raised money to bring in experts to do a thorough structural assessment.

Even though that engineering work would be done without cost to the school board, a large block of attendees — including all the trustees except for Carla Beck, who represents Connaught’s subdivision, and Kathleen O’Reilly — voted against free information, and the motion was narrowly defeated.

Parents1 from Marion McVeety Elementary School brought forward grave concerns about staffing at their school. Even though it has many special needs students, McVeety only has the equivalent of one and a half educational assistants for the whole school. One parent spoke of how her son struggles with Developmental Apraxia, a disorder that affects speech and motor control, but can’t rely on adult help for even simple things like operating the locks in the bathroom stalls. Another told of a parent whose child has a serious learning disability but has been waiting five years for educational support from the board — every year it’s been promised; every year the board has failed to come through.

Ultimately, the best that board chair Gagne could offer was to assure the McVeety parents that the board would look into their concerns and get back to them as soon as possible. So basically, a repeat of the answer that inspired those parents to show up at the AGM in the first place.

Getting the picture? Few people left the meeting fully satisfied.

And as the public school board AGM drew to a close with Real Renewal organizer Trish Elliott2 vowing that the fight to save Connaught would continue though their motion was lost, it seemed as though this annual ritual was just one messy skirmish in an endless war. A war rendered meaningless as the real power behind the school board was absent — or at least invisible. With the provincial government keeping the board’s budget so tight, there is little the board can do to satisfy so many disparate groups. And restricting education funding to a trickle is an easy thing for Brad Wall and Education Minister Don Morgan to do as — unlike the poor lackeys on the school board — they never have to face an hours-long grilling from angry parents and public school ratepayers.

The Saskatchewan Party government can sit safe and smug in their palace on the Wascana, free to play political games, sheltered from blame by their trustees, never really accountable to we peasantry.

And that reminds me of a line from George R. R. Martin’s A Game Of Thrones: “A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.”

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1. Full disclosure: one of the parents who made the presentation on behalf of McVeety parents was Tammi Morash, the wife of Prairie Dog’s publisher, Terry Morash. What can we say? Regina’s a small city. Prairie Dog has a politically active team. Stuff like this is bound to happen.

2. Another close friend of and sometime writer for Prairie Dog.

2014-02-06

1 thought on “AGM Of Thrones”

  1. Paul: It really helps to have some historical background on education issues. Let me give you some, because your grasp of at least one of the topics raised at the AGM is decidedly shallow as well as partisan.

    I was on the RBE when the provincial government of the day, the NDP, removed developmental apraxia from the list of designated disorders for which the Department of Learning (as it then was called) authorized earmarked funding to school divisions. We heard presentations from concerned parents at that time, and we forwarded those concerns along with our own to the Minister, Andrew Thomson, to no avail. The government claimed that it was moving away from the specific designation model — the “disease model”, as departmental folk called it — to a lump sum of special-needs funding to each division, which each division could allocate as its circumstances dictated. This still might have worked out, because Boards of Education then had the power to set local mill rates, and could make up funding shortfalls through their access to the local property tax. Now, of course, it’s a very different story. Boards are much more constrained than they were before, and as you have noted above, they take the lumps meant for those who really control the purse strings. It doesn’t much matter who the party in power is: the program is the same.

    I take issue with your use of the word “lackey”. You insult not only those Trustees whose views run counter to your own, but also those with whom you agree.

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