Manitoba government launches website to clear 'misconceptions' around Bill 64

Education Minister Cliff Cullen announced the launch of a new website to combat Bill 64 misconceptions on Monday.

Mounting opposition to Bill 64 to overhaul Manitoba’s education system has prompted the provincial government to release a new fact versus fiction document.

Cliff Cullen, the province’s education minister, said the concerns are largely based on politically motivated misinformation campaigns aimed at intentionally misleading Manitobans.

“Unfortunately, the purpose of their campaign is to instill fear and anxiety in parents and educators,” Cullen said during a media conference Monday.

The bill paves the way for the province’s English-language school divisions to be merged into 15 geographic regions overseen by one provincial education authority.

Locally elected school boards would be eliminated and school community councils made up of parents would be formed. The government has said the bill and a new education strategy are based on the findings of a recent K-12 education review it commissioned and are aimed at improving student outcomes.

“What is unfortunate is the political campaign that is happening right now that will not fill the gaps and address the discrepancies in the current system,” Cullen said.

He accused the opposition NDP, Manitoba School Boards Association and leadership of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society of spreading politically motivated misinformation about the bill.

Cullen said the fact vs. fiction document addresses what he calls common misconceptions over school closures, concerns surrounding poverty and centralization. But critics of the bill argue their concerns are legitimate.

“I think the information that we’ve been conveying is from the proposed legislation,” said James Bedford, president of the teachers’ society. “It’s from Bill 64.”

Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, said the organization has been sharing facts about the role of school boards and facts about what the changes will mean for Manitobans and communities.

“For the minister to come out in a press conference and say we’re somehow spreading misinformation is predictable, not surprising but still disappointing,” Campbell said.

‘IT’S THE SILENT MAJORITY’: RETIRED TEACHER OPPOSED TO CHANGES

Gerhard Sommerfeld, a retired teacher and principal, spent more than 30 years working in the education system and isn’t shy about sharing his opposition to Bill 64.

“It’s the silent majority that is really quite concerned about what’s about to happen,” Sommerfeld said.

Now a grandparent, he and his wife have both returned to the classroom in their own way amid the pandemic. They’ve been leading remote learning sessions for some of their grandchildren out of a cozy hut in their Riverview yard.

Their front lawn features four signs from different organizations – including one from the Manitoba Liberals and one from the NDP – against the provincial government’s legislation to overhaul the education system.

And Sommerfeld, who maintains he holds no allegiance to any one political party, is one of 400 people signed up so far to speak to the Education Modernization Act sometime in October during legislative committee meetings.

“The biggest concern is that we are suddenly not looking at representation by numbers but we’re looking at representation by geographical area,” said Sommerfeld.

The number of people registered to speak to the bill could break a record.

The most presenters who have spoken to a piece of legislation is 263 — that happened in 2008 in response to the hog barn ban introduced by the previous NDP government.

Both the minister and his spokesperson cited the increased use of technology and video conferencing at the committee stage due to COVID-19 as reasons for the large number people who want to speak to the bill. They said this makes it easier for Manitobans to sign up and speak at committee than going to the legislature to speak in person.

“I’m looking forward to that discussion for sure,” Cullen said. “It’s good to see passion coming from Manitobans when it comes to K-12 education.”

“We think there’s an opportunity to improve our system. That’s why we want to engage Manitobans.”

OPPOSITION TO BILL NOT STRICTLY POLITICAL, OPPOSITION SAYS

The opposition NDP argues the outcry shows people of all political stripes have concerns.

“And a good number of those come from rural seats that the PCs have always held,” said NDP leader Wab Kinew. “So, this thing is very, very unpopular and it’s unpopular including in the Conservatives’ own backyards.”

Asked during a media conference to name supporters of the changes, Cullen answered by saying Manitobans have indicated there’s room for improvement.

“That’s why we embarked on this journey two years ago,” Cullen said. “It really is a five-year strategy to improve K-12 education.”

Bedford said he wants a discussion with the minister to go over what’s in the education review but not in the bill.

Sommerfeld, meantime, said he’ll soon be adding to his collection of lawn signs, with one of his own.

“I’ll put the phone number of who contact in the Legislature to come and make a presentation.”

-With files from CTV's Mason DePatie