Why Did We Amalgamate School Divisions?

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

In July, 2002, our NDP government passed Bill 14, The Public Schools Modernization Act, which, excluding the Franco-Manitoban district, reduced the number of school divisions in the province from 54 to 37. Twelve new school divisions were created through the amalgamation of existing divisions and 25 previous divisions were left untouched. Manitobans are still waiting for the benefits of this historic initiative, whose costs so far bear no relation to projections and whose rationale is still unclear.

During the 1990s, a number of national trends affecting public schools emerged. They included province-wide standards testing and outcome-based education, a reduction in the number of school boards or elimination of them, formation of school advisory councils and the establishment of charter schools. Their overall impact on the structure of Canadian school organizations meant decentralization and diminished bureaucracy, the reduction of hierarchical management structures and the creation of flat organizational systems designed to empower employees in decision-making and to increase emphasis on teamwork.

Manitoba’s Conservative government of the day was cognizant of all this. In 1993, it established the Norrie Commission to review existing school division boundaries. In 1994, it released the New Directions Blueprint for Educational Reform, and over the next five years implemented it with measures like outcome-based curriculum, provincial standards tests, the Western Canadian Protocol for common curriculum, advisory councils for school leadership and schools of choice legislation. The Norrie Commission’s final report in 1995 recommended a redesign of existing school division boundaries to achieve a reduction from 56 to 21 divisions. The Tories ultimately shelved the idea and instead attempted to encourage voluntary amalgamations.

In that context, shortly after its election to government in 1999, the Doer government expressed an interest in reducing the number of school divisions. The NDP felt no need for a new study of the matter and undoubtedly examined the Norrie report in detail. In November 2001, two years after coming into government, the Minister of Education announced that the number of school divisions in the province would be reduced from 54 to 37. But the legislation named above did not even remotely resemble the recommendations of the Norrie report.

The rationale given by the Minister for amalgamation centred on equalization of resources, unnecessary duplication of services and a reduction of costs in administration which would result in savings that could be directed towards classroom instruction. It was estimated that amalgamation would result in a savings of $10 million.

A Frontier Centre backgrounder looks at the relevant statistics from the Department’s FRAME report. It shows that the projected cost savings of school division amalgamation have not materialized. Spending in the amalgamated school divisions increased by over $27 million in one year. The actual annual savings in administrative costs in the twelve amalgamated divisions stood at a half-million dollars, one 20th of the projected $10 million.

Most of that was realized in the consolidated remote division, Frontier. Two of the largest forced mergers, the amalgamations of River East with the Transcona portion of Transcona-Springfield, and of St. Boniface and St. Vital, saved nothing. In the latter, administrative costs went up only slightly but in former they increased by more than $400,000. When Ft. Garry and Assiniboine South merged, they saved a fair bit, almost $80,000. But in urban divisions especially, the real costs didn’t appear on any balance sheet.

Those who work inside these large organizations have freely reported the difficulties. Bureaucratic turf wars between competing work groups with different cultures and styles meant that the educational mission suffered. All change is difficult, but if mergers failed to save money overall and forced so many painful adjustments, why were they mandated? The Manitoba Association of School Trustees has regularly chided the government for the error, but the Premier says he disagrees with their figures.

The damning numbers come right from the Department of Education. As an old union hand, Gary Doer should know why spending spiked after amalgamations. Everybody in the larger work units – teachers and support staff – had their remuneration topped up to the higher of the merged scales. The phenomenon is called “levelling up,” and it is a useful tool for the present government to redeem its obligation to the special interest groups who work so hard to elect it. In the year after forced mergers, provincial school costs consequently went up $540 per child, or seven percent.

Another possible explanation making the rounds is more troubling. Some have claimed that decisions about which divisions in Winnipeg had to merge and which did not were based on a careful calculation of their local political effects. Since the mandated amalgamation of specific school divisions resulted in negligible cost savings in administration and increased overall spending, this slightly paranoid theory has achieved some credibility.

But we don’t need to speculate. In the final analysis, using the government’s own numbers, this was a costly and disruptive undertaking largely void of positive benefits. Certainly the initiative was not launched on the basis of sound planning and research.

The current Minister of Education, Peter Bjornson, says he is not planning any further forced mergers of school divisions. Let’s at least thank him for that.