Edmonton

Edmonton Public School Board set for shakeup in fall election

At least half of the current members on the Edmonton Public School Board are staying out of the election race this fall.

At least five of nine seats up for grabs in Oct. 18 municipal election

The Edmonton Public School Board governs 214 schools and more than 100,000 students. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

At least half of the eight sitting trustees on the Edmonton Public School Board are staying out of the municipal election race this fall.

Three-term trustee Michael Janz and two-term trustees Bridget Stirling and Michelle Draper say they will not seek re-election in the Oct. 18 vote. 

Four-term trustee Ken Gibson announced Tuesday he is not seeking re-election either. 

So far, only one trustee, Nathan Ip, has announced re-election plans. Ip will be seeking a third term. 

Board chair Trisha Estabrooks and trustees Sherry Adams and Shelagh Dunn say they have yet to decide. 

Cheryl Johner resigned from the nine-member board last June after making racist comments at a meeting. 

Ip, trustee for Ward H in the southwest, said he'd like to stick around to make sure the board retains the institutional knowledge gained over the last eight years. 

"I felt there needed to be some continuity on the board," Ip said Wednesday. "I hope we'll have a balance of both continuity and also fresh perspectives." 

Learning loss

Ip said he worries about students' mental health and whether they are getting adequate support. 

"I'm concerned about the learning loss that many students have experienced this past year," he said.

Schools will be dealing with the impact of the pandemic for years to come and the province needs to understand that, Ip said.

"One thing that I want to stress is, this is not business as usual. And I think one of my disappointments, perhaps with our government currently, is that they're treating it as if it's business as usual."

Ip said he also worries about funding for schools remaining stagnant amid a growing student population.

"When it's the same size of a pie but you're serving more students, then effectively every student will get a smaller slice of the pie or it's less funding per student that you're able to work with," he said. 

Fear of debate

Outgoing trustee Stirling mentioned several reasons she's chosen not to run again. Politics is one, she told CBC News Wednesday. 

Changes to the Education Act in summer 2019 include the power for colleagues to removing a trustee from the board by a vote. 

In many cases, trustees are barred from speaking to the media on critical issues, Stirling noted.

"There is a fear about public debate," she said. "It's gotten worse — as I think school boards have felt — under threat or under attack by government."

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has used "threatening language towards the boards about whether they would be able to continue in their jobs if they did not comply with her desires," Stirling said. 

Stirling noted many of the conversations with the minister take place behind closed doors but one public example is the censuring of the Calgary Board of Education. LaGrange ordered a review of the board's finances in late 2019 and made comments tantamount to dissolving them. 

After stepping away from politics, Stirling plans to finish a PhD in educational policy studies at the University of Alberta.

Fresh blood

Janz said he feels he's made a contribution over 11 years on the board and that it's time to step away, for now. 

"I believe in fresh blood and fresh perspective," he said. "I believe in public education. I will continue to fight for public education." 

The school trustee side of the municipal ballots should be considered the most important, Janz argued. 

He said parents and community members at large can push for a better educational environment.  

"Your voice does matter and you can see change," Janz said.  

One example, he said, was the government's move to cut the school nutrition program. Parents rose up and the program was maintained. 

Stand in unity

Stirling believes it's time for boards to take a united stance to force change. 

"If one board speaks up, they're very easily targeted, but if all the boards speak up, we could really bring about some change in the circumstances of education in Alberta."

School trustees have close access to constituents and can mobilize communities in a direct way, she noted. 

"Boards still have a strong political voice if they choose to use it," she said.

Catholic board

All seven sitting Catholic school board trustees are seeking re-election, including board chair Sandra Palazzo.

Palazzo is in her first term as a trustee, after 30 years as a teacher in the Catholic system and time as a senior manager with Alberta Education. 

"Political advocacy for the needs of the Edmonton Catholic School Division will be even more critical as we navigate through a post-pandemic world," Palazzo said in an email to CBC News.   

Palazzo said a top priority is to work "collaboratively with committed colleagues, school communities, provincial partners and stakeholders to address, advocate and support the needs of all students and staff."

Four other trustees are finishing their first terms. 

Laura Thibert is in her third term and Debbie Engel, first elected in 1998, is in her seventh.

@natashariebe

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