Monday, 21 March 2016

Taking a Look at the School Board Elections Debate

Taking a Look at the School Board Elections Debate

By: Ryan Young

So far since the house opened on March 8th, a large part of question period has been dominated by questions of school closures and the school board elections that the Liberals promised in their platform last fall. Education Minister Dale Kirby was a vocal supporter of school board elections, but over the last two weeks he has faced a barrage of accusations, with many in opposition questioning his support for the issue.

NDP critic Gerry Rogers has been one of Minister Kirby’s most outspoken critics. That is not surprising since one of the schools slated for closure just happens to be in her district. MHA Rogers is simply doing what she was elected to do by representing the wishes of her constituents. I would not expect any less from any member not sitting on the government side. Gerry Rogers is an MHA that is closely connected with the people of her district, and tends to rely on using logic and fact instead of bluster during her questions. While she can be said to be politicizing the issue, she is at least doing so as the voice of the parents in her district that will be directly affected by this decision.

The official opposition PC’s, by comparison, seem determined to make a mountain out of a molehill. While Gerry Rogers is speaking directly on behalf of her constituents who are losing a school, the Tories seem determined to try to use the issue solely to try to score a few political points. The unfortunate thing that the PC party is failing to realize is that their own track record is still fresh in the minds of the public. MHA David Brazil may have been speaking with a kernel of truth when he asked Minister Kirby why school board elections would take a year to implement when the government was able to implement their brand of electoral reform in just a few months. That might indeed be a fair point except for two reasons. The first is that the electoral reform that saw eight seats cut from the House of Assembly last year received a great deal of public outcry from people who thought that the legislation was rushed, and that the boundary commission had failed to consider many aspects that were important to voters in rural districts. The second and most important reason why we can’t take Mr. Brazil’s comments seriously is because it was the PC government, of which he was a cabinet minister, which failed to hold school board elections in the first place, despite promising them within a year back in 2013.

Brazil and the rest of the Tory opposition crew might have actually scored a few positive points if they had pressed Minister Kirby for a specific timeline, but instead they decided to take the low road and stoop to useless pot shots. If the PC party in this province ever wants to rebuild itself in the eyes of the voters they need to abandon this childish bluster and prove that they are willing to eat a little crow and change the direction of the party in anticipation of 2019/2020. With Paul Davis and Co. at the helm I won’t be holding my breath for that to happen anytime soon.

And what about Minister Kirby’s role in all of this? Despite his unnecessary remarks towards the NDP when he was first questioned on the issue, he has been very consistent in his answers. The Liberal party promised during the election to hold democratic school board elections within twelve months. He has been adamant that he is committed to ensuring that the elections will be held in that time frame. No matter what the opposition party may want to throw at the minister, or how many times they refer to his comments while in opposition, unless the elections are not held by November 30, 2016, their arguments don’t really hold any weight. Issues like this are always great for a sound bite for the media but the truth of the matter is that the Liberals asked for a one year mandate to deliver this promise and the voters delivered it to them. So unless December comes and we still have not had the promised elections, Mr. Davis and Mr. Brazil should look for a new issue to grandstand on.

The other issue at hand is the closing of schools by the current un-elected school board. Both opposition parties have criticized the minister for not taking the power of school closures away from the school boards. Dale Kirby has repeatedly stated that the legislation grants all power to close schools to the school boards. It is the law of the land.  While this is 100% true, I always hate that argument from elected officials. They are lawmakers by their very job description. If Minister Kirby wanted to change the legislation and give himself the final say in what schools are closed he could certainly do so, especially when that is what the other parties are asking for. But is that really what we want? Do we want to take that responsibility from the school boards and place it in the hands of the minister? I don’t think so. The whole point of lobbying for elected school boards is to add another layer of democracy to the process by which education funding is allocated. An elected school board, representing districts from all regions of the province, would certainly be expected to be more in tune with the needs of our children and educators than the minister or his staff. While I don’t agree with an un-elected board making the final decision on school closures, I am skeptical of the merit of changing legislation that would need to be reversed in a few months when the elections finally take place.

I understand the frustration of Gerry Rogers, and I get the political motives behind the Tory criticism, but in the magical world of political reality this issue is already dead in the water. As much as I sympathize with the students at Holy Cross, I also understand that difficult decisions have to be made and that we are not all going to agree with them. Minister Kirby has been quite clear in his answers that he intends to stay the course and ensure that the issue is handled correctly. As much as I enjoy a good fight against the government, my advice is for the PC’s and the NDP to let this dog lie a little longer and focus on one of the many other issues where we can try to force the Liberals into enabling positive change. Why keep fighting a losing battle?

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