North Battleford city councillors vented at length at Monday’s meeting about the transformational change discussions going on in the province.
Councillors made clear they are concerned not only about school board amalgamations and possibly doing away with elections, but also the elimination of the health regions in favour of a single province-wide authority.
The issue came up in response to correspondence from Glen Gantefoer, chair of the Light of Christ Catholic Schools board.
Gantefoer asked for a letter of support from council for retaining elected boards and for no further amalgamations.
In response, council has unanimously passed a resolution in favour of locally elected school boards. The next step will be crafting the letter of support and sending it to the province, with that letter incorporating all the concerns expressed by council on the issue.
The issue of restructuring school boards has gained momentum over the past month with a six-person advisory panel holding meetings across the province.
Gantefoer and Living Sky board chair Ronna Pethick had held a joint press conference in January in which they both expressed support for continuing with elected boards.
Council members made it known they agreed with Gantefoer and that they did not want to see any changes to the school board structure.
Their concerns mainly revolved around the impact of losing regional decisions, but Councillor Kent Lindgren’s concern was much more basic. He felt the proposed school board changes were simply undemocratic.
“I really do have a firm belief in locally elected people making decisions for local people,” said Lindgren.
Eliminating elected boards, he said, “really goes against that belief in democracy to me.” Lindgren called on council to “stand with other locally elected representatives” on the issue.
“I don’t think it’s a huge jump from removing certain elected people to removing other elected people,” said Lindgren.
However, the concerns for council went beyond education. Several of them voiced their opposition to amalgamating the Prairie North Health Region into a single provincial health authority.
Both Councillor Don Buglas and Councillor Kelli Hawtin wanted to show support for local representation at the health regions as well.
“We have unique needs in our area,” said Hawtin.
Councillor Len Taylor pointed to examples of initiatives that got their start at the regional level in both health and education.
He credited Prairie North Health Region for “working very hard to find the money and the staffing” to bring the regional dialysis centre to the Battlefords. The dialysis unit at Battlefords Union Hospital was recently expanded and moved to a new location on the third floor, with a ribbon-cutting taking place Tuesday morning.
Taylor also pointed to Sakewew High School as another example, an initiative of both local school boards and the tribal councils to improve aboriginal graduation rates.
“Those were regional decisions that were then taken to the province,” said Taylor.
“We have to applaud our community and the region for what it’s done, and the best way to do that is don’t change it.”
Councillor Greg Lightfoot expressed concern about the likely centralization of health services in the major cities.
“We will lose some very good paying jobs in this area,” said Lightfoot. “And that will hurt our economy in a big way.”
Mayor Ryan Bater was in agreement with what he had heard from councillors.
“The solutions to a challenge are best solved closest to where that challenge is,” said Bater.
He also repeated Lightfoot’s concern that local jobs will be lost to Saskatoon or Regina.
“Those jobs will absolutely be noticed in a community our size,” said Bater.
While North Battleford city council has made its thoughts known on the issue of “transformational change,” opposition continues to mount elsewhere, including from the province’s unions.
CUPE issued a news release Jan. 24 voicing concern that the consultation process is being “rushed” and is not offering meaningful opportunities for engagement. The union has come out against any changes.
“Frontline workers, who have already had hours reduced because of government funding cuts, are concerned that restructuring will remove community accountability, create unstable labour relations and, most importantly, lower the quality of education for students,” said Tom Graham, president of CUPE Saskatchewan, in a statement.
“CUPE supports the status quo of maintaining the existing 28 elected school divisions. Perrins’ report has not provided any evidence or rationale for further amalgamations.”