Manitoba education minister looks to build relationships damaged by anxiety around Bill 64

Manitoba’s education minister says he’s hoping to mend fences damaged by Bill 64, the province’s proposed — and now abandoned — education reform bill.

That update comes one day after interim Premier Kelvin Goertzen announced he’ll scrap the controversial bill, a piece of legislation introduced in March which would have seen a massive overhaul of Manitoba’s education system.

Education Minister Cliff Cullen said at a Thursday news conference that the bill’s governance model became a “lightning rod” for controversy and distracted from improving student outcomes.

That model would have replaced the province’s 37 English-language school divisions with a single provincial education authority, dissolved elected school boards and created local community school advisory councils.

Then-premier Brian Pallister lauded the idea as a way to address what he called a “very top-heavy” system.

The idea was more than five years in the making, first raised in 2017 when the province promised a review of how education is delivered and funded.

The oft-delayed process was revived in January 2019, when Goertzen was the education minister. At the time, he announced a commission had been struck and tasked with creating a renewed vision for the education system.

WATCH | Education minister on reaction to Bill 64:

Cliff Cullen comments on widespread opposition to Bill 64

3 hours ago

Education Minister Cliff Cullen addressed the strong criticism of Bill 64 during a news conference Thursday. 0:36

Now, Cullen said he wants to “repair any bridges that we have maybe damaged in that journey.”

Opportunity ‘to reflect’

But discussions will continue about how to reform and improve Manitoba’s school system, he said.

“We’re still spending second- or third-highest per capita on students, results aren’t where we think they should be and Manitobans have asked us to address that. And that’s a work in progress and we’re going to continue that work,” Cullen said.

“I think this is an opportunity for us just to pause and reflect on what we’ve heard. We will continue the dialogue. I know the discussion and the governance model has created some tensions with our stakeholders. I think this is a real opportunity for us to build those relationships [and] gather their input.”

A report was supposed to be delivered in March 2020 but was delayed when the pandemic started. By the time it came out, a year later, it was introduced by Cullen, the newly appointed education minister.

While the report recommended an overhaul of the system, the government plan did not closely follow those recommendations. For example, the report recommended consolidation to create six to eight regional school boards, not the elimination of their role.

Cullen said his task now will be to gather information collected over the last few years and “clear the table” for whoever is selected as Manitoba’s next premier when the governing Progressive Conservatives hold their leadership vote next month.

“We do want to have a clean slate [when] our new leader is selected come the end of October,” he said, adding it’s too early for him to say what kind of education changes that person might bring to the table.

“So I’m not going to prescribe what might come forward under the new leader and … potentially a new cabinet.”

Cullen said the province will continue its engagement efforts through advisory groups that have already been established and other groups and task forces still coming.

Those new groups will include one that looks at poverty and education and another panel that will review Manitoba’s school curriculum, something he said hasn’t been done for 25 years.

“I see this as an opportunity for us to really build the relationships that may have been tarnished over the past debate over Bill 64,” Cullen said.

“I think there’s a lot of good work ahead of us.”

Meanwhile, Cullen said Manitoba’s cut to its education property tax pledged in the 2021-22 provincial budget will go forward as planned, Cullen said.

Criticism of bill

The response to Bill 64 was swift and critical, prompting numerous campaigns against it and thousands of lawn signs to sprout up across the province.

The Manitoba School Boards Association campaigned to keep elected school boards, saying they are essential to keeping the school system connected to communities.

In June of this year, Cullen addressed the criticism as a “misinformation campaign” led by the NDP, Manitoba School Boards Association and the leadership of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. 

Yet in August, when Heather Stefanson announced she would run to replace the outgoing Pallister — and that she intended to jettison Bill 64 — Cullen stood applauding in support behind her.

In announcing he was scrapping the bill on Wednesday, Goertzen said “many good things” came out of the kindergarten to Grade 12 review that formed the basis of Bill 64, but perhaps the legislation in the end had moved too far from the intent of the report.