Lack of funding disclosure rules for Manitoba school trustee campaigns hurts transparency: expert
Unlike other levels of public office, school trustee election candidates have no limits on spending, donations
While a number of Winnipeg School Division trustee candidates seem to be running similar campaigns — evidenced by their websites, Facebook videos and advertisements — it's unclear if there's any co-ordination between the candidates.
That's because the people involved are tight-lipped, and Manitoba doesn't have any laws requiring disclosure about who is financing those campaigns.
At the federal, provincial and municipal levels, the influence of outside parties is limited by regulations that restrict donation amounts and require transparency around the support received.
But school board races in Manitoba have no spending rules, and no requirements for tracking donations or filing audited financial statements.
Questions about transparency have come up this year ahead of the Oct. 26 election, after some Winnipeg School Division trustee candidates have presented professional-appearing campaigns with similar website templates, well-produced sponsored videos on Facebook feeds, and high-visibility advertisements on recycling bins along streets.
None of them have confirmed any collaboration.
Cameron Hauseman, an assistant professor of educational administration at the University of Manitoba, said he noticed parallels between some websites.
He notes the position they're running for is called "trustee" because "they are literally serving in the public trust."
"So if there's an expectation that they're going to engage in certain behaviours regarding transparency and accountability as trustees, it would be awesome if they'd demonstrate those same behaviours in the election race."
No comment from candidates
In an October Twitter post, the group People for Public Education — which says its aim is to "protect public education in Manitoba" by advocating for funding — alleged "several trustee campaigns in the Winnipeg School Division are being massively funded by one organization."
The post encouraged voters to ask candidates about their funding.
It has come to our attention that several trustee campaigns in the Winnipeg School Division are being massively funded by one organization.<br><br>We urge people to ask candidates how their campaign is being funded.—@PublicEdMB
None of the candidates who appear to be running similar campaigns would answer questions, asked over the course of multiple days, on whether any specific person or organization is involved in running their campaigns.
When reached by phone last week, two of those candidates told CBC News to spend time on more important stories instead. They also said they were getting support from family and friends.
The candidates with the comparable-looking campaigns all have websites with a similar template, featuring a donate button that asks visitors, in identical wording, to "donate today" by sending an e-transfer.
In another commonality, three of the candidates posted an identical Facebook post about the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation over a nine-minute span.
The websites also have similar embedded videos, but no design credits.
David Gerhard, head of the University of Manitoba's computer science department, said there are commonalities, but there are enough variations, like using different domain registration companies and video players, that it is possible that separate people are involved.
"Similar? Definitely. Made using the same tools? Very probably," he said in an email.
"Made by the same person? I would say it would be very difficult to prove this, since these tools and techniques are widely known and widely available."
The registrar for the comparable websites is redacted on an online domain lookup service, except on one website, where Sputnik Art, a Toronto-based design company, is credited. The company's owner confirmed in a phone call his company made several websites for WSD trustee hopefuls, but wouldn't say who enlisted his help.
There are no directives preventing election contenders from helping each other, or using the same firm for a service.
One candidate — whose campaign materials are different from the other candidates — declined an interview for this story, but has tweeted about her campaign financing.
Rebecca Chambers, who is running in Winnipeg School Division's Ward 4, said in a series of tweets a philanthropist offered her money and mentorship in campaigning. She declined the mentorship, saying she "wanted to retain full control of the scope and direction of the campaign."
She took the financial assistance, but stressed the contribution did not make up the majority of money she's raised for her campaign.
"Every dollar received has been put toward campaign materials, and every message and philosophy and strategy has been directly from me," she wrote on Twitter.
A person connected to the philanthropist said they only make donations to registered charities.
Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Labour Council confirmed it provides a $500 honorarium for school trustee contenders it endorses, including nine WSD candidates this year.
The left-of-centre group says it supports candidates who share the "values of labour, value public education and will be available to working families and communities."
School board elections need provincial change: expert
Hauseman said the involvement of an organization in an election race, particularly if the organization is not transparent, raises questions around the criteria for an endorsement and what might be expected of the candidate in exchange.
He would like to see the financing rules for candidates running at other levels of government expanded to school division elections.
"It really seems important that we come up with something to increase the level of transparency," Hauseman said.
Any changes require new legislation from the provincial government.
The province said it has received no complaints regarding the issue but would not answer a question about whether the Progressive Conservative government feels changes are necessary.
WSD Ward 2 candidate Chris Broughton, who is seeking re-election, worries about the power that people with considerable resources could have on the outcome of a democratic election and beyond.
"To what extent are candidates beholden to those that support their campaigns like this? People are looking for transparency and rightfully so, and so the transparency of how campaigns are funded and how decisions are made at school board, I think, are becoming more and more important," he said.
Broughton has previously received the Winnipeg Labour Council's endorsement, but not this year.
He said he appreciates that the organization is honest about its involvement in election races. The council seeks like-minded individuals, he said, but doesn't order compliance once candidates are elected.
The Manitoba School Boards Association isn't advocating for a change to campaign finance rules, but would favour an earlier start to the nomination period for school trustees, so that voters are more aware of educational priorities and school board governance structures.
President Alan Campbell said introducing new administrative tasks into trustee elections could discourage people from running for office.
Trustees are typically community members "who are able to seek election with minimal barriers standing in the way of what remains the most grassroots form of non-partisan democracy in Canada," he said in an email.
"We believe this must remain protected at all times."