More than mayor and council at stake: What do you know about school board trustee candidates?

Calgary's municipal election takes the form of three distinct selections for voters, and the one that's often forgotten is the school board trustee.

Gay/straight alliances, new schools and busing demonstrate importance of trustee elections

Eleven of the 45 candidates for the city's school board trustee seats engaged in a forum Tuesday. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Forty-five names will appear on Calgarians' ballots when they head to the polls, and those names aren't of the individuals running for city council or in the mayoral race — they are the people running to be trustees of the area's school boards. 

While voter turnout for municipal elections is notoriously low when compared to the federal and provincial ones, turnout is lower still for trustee elections, despite the ballots being cast in the same place at the same time. 

For example, nearly 39,000 votes were cast for city councillors in wards 1 and 2 in the 2013 election. But for the school trustee position representing those same wards in both the public and separate school boards, not quite 34,000 ballots were cast. 

That means roughly 5,000 voters in that one district turned down the chance to cast a ballot for trustee positions in that election despite having showed up to the poll. 

A 'washed out' contest

"I know for voters, city council is already pretty hard in terms of finding the kind of information people need to cast – what some would consider to be an informed ballot — and I think school board is harder," Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, told CBC News. 

"It gets washed out in the context of the council and the mayoral races. And so, in finding information about the candidates, voters have to work really hard to go and get that information." 
Melanee Thomas says the amount of work a voter has to go through to find information for an election is inversely related to how many people turnout to vote in that election. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Thomas admitted that even she, a politics buff, neglected to vote in trustee elections when she was younger. So, she can see where voters are coming from. 

"I would imagine some voters would even forget they have the ability to vote in a school board election."

Former trustee trumpets importance of position

Amber Stewart is an outgoing trustee for the Calgary Board of Education and says she holds the role in as much esteem as the day she took the office. 

Stewart says the trustees delegate much of the detail-oriented work to CBE staff but that the trustees govern the values through which all other decisions are made. 

While busing is an issue that's raised the ire of parents this year, Stewart points to two other concrete issues trustees have been dealing closely with in their last term: new school construction and gay/straight alliances. 

GSAs were a topic that sparked the most debate at a forum held for three of the jurisdictions on Tuesday. The group split 6-4 among candidates who said they thought parents should automatically be told their children joined an alliance group, versus those who didn't. 

"We see across the province, there is a wide variety of ways in which school boards have interpreted the legislation and have implemented it in their school boards. That's a reflection of the community and that reflection comes through trustees," Stewart said. 

Oddities in 2017 election

In this particular election, a group of five candidates has formed a slate — a political party of sorts — to help voters understand that those candidates stand together on particular ideas. 

This is an interesting tactic to encourage voters, and to try to address the difficulty of finding information, Thomas says. 

Thomas says the emergence of the lawn sign for even the trustee election shows how much money is being put into the races. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

She adds she's surprised to see lawn signs in the trustee races, something she doesn't recall having seen much of in the past. 

"There appear to be some heavily resourced school board campaigns. Even the sign campaign is something that well outpaces what I would expect to see at this particular level. ... I think there's something going on there. We'll see how that shakes out," Thomas said. 

Ample choice

There are 45 candidates for various school board trustee positions. For the public board, there are a dozen candidates running to represent the ward 5/10 seat — a district that has an incumbent. 

Of seven trustees sitting on the public board, only three are seeking reelection. Stewart said she's confident the trustees won't be at a disadvantage because of the loss of institutional knowledge. 

Some candidates have drawn public scorn for views they hold, but since these will be the people who set the values for the entire board of education, Stewart says voters need to know who they're voting for, and what they stand for.