Winnipeg parents did not hold back frank criticism about either Bill 64 or the province’s consultation process on the controversial education reform legislation during an engagement session Monday.
Provincial officials and parent engagement task force members listened to concerns about everything from the abolition of elected trustees to how poverty affects parent participation in K-12 education during a Zoom event about the future of caregiver-run councils.
The hour-long meeting, which drew approximately 220 attendees, is among the virtual events the province has been hosting to gauge feedback on the Education Modernization Act, which will replace elected school boards with a centralized authority of appointees.
“School community councils” — what Bill 64 indicates will be created at every school and replace current parent advisory councils (PACs) on which members will have new advisory powers to weigh in on budget-making and hiring — were the subject of discussion.
“To me, that sounds like a trustee and to expect parents to do that for free… I do not feel equipped and qualified to be part of this type of council,” said one attendee, who identified themself as a teacher of 20 years.
Current successes of parent councils, barriers to school engagement, and supports required to help councils do their job in the future were all discussed.
Throughout the event, participants raised questions about the parent engagement officer role, including whether it is appropriate to call the position an “officer,” what its portfolio will be, and how much it will cost to have such a position at every large school.
On the subject of consultation setup, attendees questioned why the chat box was disabled (it was enabled in the remaining few minutes of the event), how all viewpoints could be considered in 50-plus person breakout groups, and why the meeting was rescheduled.
(A spokesperson said it was moved from June 22 to Monday because planners realized it was scheduled a day before a telephone town hall for Winnipeg families on June 23 and only 14 people registered for the initial date.)
Two different attendees called the event an avenue to drive the province’s agenda rather than to do meaningful consultation.
“We’re not afraid to share some of the concerns that have been brought forward. We understand that there is some issues — that more clarity around school community councils and how they differ from PAC is (needed),” said Scott Johnston, chairman of the task force, PC MLA for St. James and a former trustee.
Johnston told attendees the task force has been hearing concerns about losing effective PAC structures, challenges about engaging and recruiting parents, centralization of education and diluted local voice, impacts of larger geographic regions, and different rural and urban needs.
The task force is expected to provide recommendations to the province by August 2021.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press