Conway Won't Run Again for School Board

As the headline indicates, John Conway announced at tonight's Regina Public School Board meeting that he will not be seeking reelection as a school trustee. This is very bad news for Regina's public schools. Here is the complete text of his press release.

For Release: 7 pm, June 16, 2009

By Dr. J. F. Conway, Trustee, Subdivision 5

Elections for the Public School Board are slated for October 2009. After 18 years of public service as a Trustee on the Board, including six successful elections, two years as Vice-Chair (1995-97) and three years as Chair (1997-2000), I have decided not to contest the coming election for Public School Board Trustee in Subdivision 5. I make this decision after serious reflection and with considerable regret. I wish to thank all those in the community who gave me their trust and support over the years.

My reasons for this decision follow.

Up until the Wall government took away local taxing powers from school boards, I had pretty well decided to run for another term. A new Board majority might have been persuaded to rescind the 10 Year School Closure Plan and to adopt instead a strategic vision based on maintaining small neighbourhood elementary schools and moving to a small class size policy. I have always advocated a “small schools/small classes” strategic vision, and the evidence mounts that such an approach is superior to closing small schools and moving toward larger and larger schools involving the bussing of growing numbers of students.

But such a plan, since it defies the favoured direction of this and previous provincial governments, requires the autonomy of local taxing powers. During my years on the Board, directions imposed by the provincial government were frequently defied by the Board. Most importantly, when the Romanow government imposed three years of deep cuts in funding in the early 1990s, the Board sheltered the system by raising local taxes. This is no longer possible.

Nor is it possible to innovate as freely as this Board was able to in the past. When the provincial government refused to move on pre-K funding, this Board did so with revenues from local taxes. When day care centres and more psychologists and social workers were considered beyond the purview of the narrow education mandate of school boards, this Board led the way with revenues from local taxes. When the provincial government refused to provide adequate funding for children with special needs, the Board filled the gap with revenues from local taxes. In each and every area of educational leadership and innovation over the years, this Board pushed the envelop with revenues from local taxes and with strong support from local taxpayers. This freedom to experiment and innovate has been drastically curtailed by the loss of local taxing powers. No where is this more clear than in the area of a possible “small schools/small classes” strategy.

A serious commitment to a “small schools/small classes” strategic plan would involve increased costs which the provincial government will not provide, including repairing the physical deterioration of many of our small schools. But the biggest cost would be incurred by a systematic move to smaller classes, and these costs would be ongoing. Smaller classes require more teachers, and reducing class sizes to the optimum level for elementary schools of 15 over five years, for example, would be costly. Under the old funding regime, with the support of the Regina public, a new Board could have raised these extra revenues through increases in local taxes. This is no longer possible.

I had also hoped a new Board majority would reverse the decision to demolish Scott and agree to incorporate the old building in the new facility in North Central. This would conservatively cost an extra $3 to 5 million. The province has refused to fund this extra cost, and the partners in the facility are unwilling to provide the extra funds. Hence an increase in local taxes would have been required to save and incorporate the Scott building. Under the new regime this is no longer possible. Thus a new Board would have to divert funds from educational programming to save Scott, a choice that involves some sacrifice of the quality of our children’s education. While I can enthusiastically support a tax increase targeted at saving Scott, I cannot support taking funds from the classroom to do so.

The bottom line is that even if a new Board majority is elected and is committed to small schools and small classes, and to saving the Scott building, and to continuing this Board’s tradition of leadership and innovation, under the new funding regime the Board elected in October 2009 will not have the autonomous fiscal power to proceed significantly against the will of the provincial government.

Under the Wall government school boards have been transformed into an administrative and disciplinary arm of the provincial government. The government sets the mill rate without our consent or advice. The government sets our budget and that is the budget the Board will have to live with and impose on the system. The Board has thereby become a political buffer between the public and the provincial government, legitimized to some extent by the fact that boards are still elected by the public.

In all conscience and in all honesty, I have difficulty seeing myself playing such a role. The prospect of running for, and serving in, an elected public office which has no fiscal power to act on behalf of the public’s wishes, and in the public interest, is a fundamental contradiction of any reasonable concept of democracy. Local democracy, in so far as public education is concerned, has been hijacked and cancelled by the actions of the Wall government.

As a result, my former resolve to run for another term has been replaced by a reluctant decision to step aside. Perhaps I can serve the Regina public more effectively in other ways in the future. Perhaps it is time for a new Trustee in Subdivsion 5 to step forward to engage in the battle for public education on this new terrain. It will certainly be a new battle, and it will be an important one in the coming years. I can think of no better time to step aside and to welcome new ideas and energy to sit around the Board table as the future of public education in Regina is charted during what will be new and turbulent times.

No Finer Place to Be

We were stuck inside most of the day finishing up our indescribably awesome June 18 issue which, among other features, includes a fun-filled tour of Regina's three First Nations' owned gas bars and a review of a documentary on Canadian heavy metal veterans Anvil. But during the lunch hour we did venture outside for a bit of fresh air and stumbled across a couple of gatherings in the downtown that provided a glimpse of what life might be like if the Regina Downtown Neighbourhood Plan is given the political and socio-economic support needed to enable its progressive and eminently sustainable vision to be realized.

The first [top] involved a celebration of Regina's multi-cultural mosaic on the Scarth Street Mall while the second [bottom] saw over one thousand people gather in Victoria Park for the seventh annual I Love Regina Day. Yeah, I know were not huge fans of platitude-driven boosterism, but it was great to see so many people in the park on an outstanding summer day.

Punk Rock Facelift

Harvest King Records' website has received an upgrade recently. The site looks good by me, and you can still order their records using your handy-dandy Paypal account. Like always, these folks do what they do very well.

The best new feature is the frontpage blog set up using Blogger, meaning you can now toss them in your Google Reader and receive automatic updates about what's going on, such as their upcoming compilation, their June 26 fundraiser, or their latest release.