Kitchener-Waterloo

School board trustee races seek candidates with just 1 month until filing deadline

There's only little over a month to go until nominations close for this fall's municipal election. And there are local races for school board trustee that have few — if any — candidates.

'People don't understand the impact we have,' Cathy Abraham says

As of July 15, no one had signed up to run for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board in this fall's election in Waterloo-Wellesley-Woolwich and Cambridge-North Dumfries. The deadline to have nomination paperwork in is 2 p.m. on Aug. 19. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

There's only little over a month to go until nominations close for this fall's municipal election and there are local races for school board trustee that have few — if any — candidates.

That concerns Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association.

"We have an impact on the future of Ontario," she said of the role school board trustees play in a community. "The work that we do at the table when we gather, is to ensure that the policies we set, the budget we set, and the director that we hire is all geared toward providing the very best possible education we can within the confines of legislation."

In the Waterloo Region District School Board, there are several candidates signed up to run to represent Waterloo-Wilmot, Kitchener and Woolwich-Wellesley, but there's just one candidate in Cambridge-North Dumfries, where three trustees will be elected.

In Cambridge-North Dumfries and Waterloo-Wellesley-Woolwich, no one has signed up to run as a trustee for the Catholic board yet. There are also no listed candidates yet for the French language boards.

Few people have signed up to run for trustee in Guelph's Upper Grand District School Board or Wellington Catholic District School Board.

Portrait of a smiling woman with glasses.
Cathy Abraham is president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association. (Ontario Public School Boards Association/opsba.org)

Abraham says often, the important work of school board trustees gets missed.

"People don't understand that the impact we have on what's happening in your community is the same as your mayor, your council member," she said. "When we're doing our job right, we have a well educated community, which is the foundation of everything that happens in our local community, our province and in Canada."

Retiring trustee: get involved

Kathi Smith is a current school board trustee with the Waterloo Region District School Board who, after 20 years, has said she won't seek re-election this fall.

Online meeting with 16 people in boxes on the screen.
Trustees and staff with the Waterloo Region District School Board are seen during an online meeting on June 20. With a month to go until paperwork needs to be filed for this fall's election, there are races in Waterloo-Wilmot, Kitchener and Woolwich-Wellesley, but just one candidate has signed up to run in Cambridge where three trustees are elected. (Waterloo Region District School Board/YouTube)

Smith's decision comes because she feels the board is at times polarized between people who lean a certain way politically and the rest of the trustees. She says she's felt like she's been under attack for speaking out when Smith says all she's doing is thinking about what's best for students.

"I've never not been able to express my opinions," she said.

But Smith says she knows the role trustees play is important for the community and she encourages others who are passionate about local schools and education to get involved.

"The thing I'm hoping right now is that people are paying attention, people are getting mad and people are going to spend time finding out who's running and I hope there's some really good people running," Smith said.

Unclear what trustees do 

Anthony Piscitelli is a former Waterloo Catholic District School Board trustee. He currently works as a professor at Conestoga College teaching in the public service program and has done research that looks at public expectations of school board trustees.

Portrait of a man.
Anthony Piscitelli is a former Catholic school board trustee who is a professor at Conestoga College and researchers governance, public opinion, social finance and policy. (Submitted by Anthony Piscitelli)

Piscitelli says every person in Ontario is a member of a school board, as a taxpayer, so that's one reason people should pay attention to who is being voted to represent them.

He said trustees are often the first line of communication for people — and it can feel like no one really notices trustees until there's a problem.

He said any time a parent — "and it was really only parents" — spoke to him, it was often about operational issues. But that's not really what a board is supposed to address.

"The whole research around governance suggests that the role of a board of directors is to really focus on strategic issues and to leave the operations to the management team," he said.

Piscitelli published a paper in January in the Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, along with Wilfrid Laurier University political science associate professor Andrea Perrella and doctoral researcher Adam Payler from the University of Birmingham in England.

Their survey found people generally see school board trustees as having three roles:

  • Represent the public.
  • Support administrative functions of the school board.
  • Ensure educational outcomes are met.

But of the 2,541 respondents, almost 40 per cent (987 respondents) didn't list any of those three roles. Instead, they said trustees either have no role, they didn't know what trustees did or gave an answer that wasn't relevant to the question.

"One general conclusion from these excluded categories is that, at best, people's views of school board trustees lack structure," the study reports. "Indeed, it is clear that about a third of respondents do not have a clear concept of what trustees do."

Trustee as 'uploader'

Piscitelli says as a trustee, he'd often listen to the frustrations of parents.

Sometimes, his role was to inform people about a policy or provide an answer to questions parents had a hard time figuring out.

"There is often also this translating function. So this is where trustees would take information from a parent and put it in language that educators could understand, because oftentimes educators are so entrenched in the system that they don't necessarily hear what the parents are saying," he said.

But the most important role of a trustee, he said, is that of "uploader."

"This is where trustees, by listening to parents, can take issues that maybe they don't realize that one parent is actually speaking for a larger group and they can bring that to the board table," he said. 

"The board may not be dealing with that individual child's issue, but they may be changing policy in a way that that actually impacts all the children facing the same issue."

Influence as a team 

Piscitelli says it would be valuable for school boards to really think about how trustees interact with parents and set guidelines.

That's particularly important as school boards deal with issues like the local boards have in the last four years: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, reconciliation and renaming schools and allegations of racism.

"Board trustees, in their other sort of strategic category, can be tremendously influential, but it's influential in a way that is not the same as as an MP or an MPP. So it becomes a little more difficult for the public to understand that," he said.

Abraham says it's important for people to know trustees do not have individual authority on their own. 

"It's only the decisions of the board and when a decision is made by a board, it's everybody's decision," she said.

Job 'rewarding'

The school boards' association is encouraging people to run in this fall's elections. The deadline to sign up to be a nominee in local school board races is 2 p.m. August 19. 

Abraham, who has been a trustee since 2000, says it's important to get the word out now about how important school trustees are, the importance of a quality education "and the impact that goes forward if somebody is undereducated."

"I don't think we've done a good enough job telling people how important this role is," she said, but added "it's an ever changing job. It's fascinating. It's rewarding."

"I could talk passion for a long time," she said. 

"I love the work we do. And I just recognize the importance of making sure that every kid has the best possible chance to be who they want to be. And that's our job, is to provide the conditions necessary for that to happen."


 About the research: The online survey of 2,541 Ontario residents was conducted between Nov. 22 and Dec. 2, 2020, which oversampled parents with school-aged children. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of the same size would yield a margin of error of +/- 1.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Bueckert

Reporter/Editor

Kate has been covering issues affecting people in southern Ontario for more than 15 years. She currently works for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. Email: kate.bueckert@cbc.ca

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