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23 informed school board voters

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I spent Thursday evening watching grass roots democracy in action — I and 23 other adults and a few kids at the only school board all-candidates’ meeting that appears to have been held anywhere in the city.

In Ward 2 of Winnipeg School Division, the Wolseley Residents Association held the only ACM out of the 24 wards representing 61 seats in the eight school divisions which are completely or partially in the city of Winnipeg.

There were 23 people there at the Robert A. Steen Community Centre old enough to vote, including the organizers and a few people accompanying the candidates — campaign volunteers who, it must be recognized, can cast votes for up to three candidates.

The meeting was up against what WSD billed that same evening as a workshop to start discussing what sort of green space will be built adjacent to Gordon Bell High School.

As candidates struggled to be heard over the bouncing balls from the kids in the gym above — symbolism of a community centre that works to get kids off the strets and involved in healthy exercise in the evening — all the strengths and shortcomings of running for school trustee were apparent.

Everyone was civil and collegial. No one took shots at any other candidate, at the current board, or at any other incumbent. Nary one breath or syllable of discord.

No one mentioned that incumbent Anthony Ramos has the NDP’s endorsement, yet appears to be running as a BFF with Coun. Harvey Smith — who didn’t get the NDP endorsement — instead of with the N-Dippers’ chosen candidate Keith Bellamy.

Ramos, for his part, showed the assuredness that comes from having served four years that included a year as board chair.

Incumbent Kristine Barr spoke with the comfort level of a lawyer and community worker who’s had 12 years on the board’s inner circle, having served several terms as board chair and finance chair.

The ward has the division’s only incumbent who isn’t seeking re-election, Cindy Gilroy-Price having chosen to run for council.

Being an incumbent isn’t a certainty for re-election, but if an incumbent hasn’t angered a significant portion of the electorate over some contentious issue, or hasn’t been invisible and a no-show at school events for the past four years, it’s hard to lose. About 10 per cent of incumbents in the city have been defeated in recent years.

It will be tough to defeat newcomer Myra Laramee. She speaks with the eloquence and passion of someone who spent decades as a teacher and principal in inner city schools. A nationally-honoured aboriginal educator, Laramee has the NDP endorsement, and arrived with ubiquitous community activist Tom Simms lugging her brochures and lawn signs.

Yet even Laramee, with the resources of the NDP behind her, talked about the difficulty of running a campaign in enormous wards. WSD’s three wards have about 43,000 eligible voters each, and each ward covers several provincial ridings.

Cathy Collins talked about that difficulty, and acknowledged that she’s ignoring downtown where she lives, in favour of campaigning in Wolseley, where, she didn’t add, the most votes are to be found.

I remember Collins from my time covering city hall, where she’s lobbied for inner city housing and other downtown issues for years. She’s a New Democrat, but not endorsed, and while Collins had a lot to say that shows she understands what WSD schools are all about, how many voters can she reach?

Rolf Salfert is a just-retired teacher who’s chosen to run where he taught, rather than where he lives, which is the north area Ward 3. People should listen when Salfert talks about needing more Canadian history and heritage in schools, but again, is that enough to get him elected?

Bradley McKay seemed like a decent and sincere guy who talked about getting grandparents involved in schools as volunteers and mentors. Can he realistically reach 43,000 voters, and does he have a sufficient understanding of a massive school division to persuade people to vote for him?

And the seventh candidate, Kenny Moran, had to work.

For all I know, there are candidates across the city who have ditched brochures and door-knocking in favour of a social network campaign, running on a campaign of Facebook and Twitter and Tweeter, mobilizing young people to turn out by their thousands. Maybe.

In my own Ward 1 of WSD, I have six candidates, and am familiar with the three incumbents, Jackie Sneesby, Joyce Bateman and Rita Hildahl. The only brochures we’ve received came from Sneesby and Bateman. None of the six has come to our door when we’ve been home.

What I know about Kevin Freedman comes from his website and from his responses to our on-line candidate survey, which you’ll find at in our municipal election package. That information is pretty extensive and detailed.

Johnny Salangad remains pretty much unknown to me. He responded to our Pay Attention, Class survey, but declined to answer some of the questions, and what he did answer didn’t tell me much. I don’t have a clue who he is.

The sixth candidate, Brenda Poersch, I still know absolutely nothing about — no literature, no website, she didn’t respond to our survey, hasn’t come to our home, Google turned up nothing.

Back to Ward 2 for one more thing.....Barr talked at one point about supporting a move in WSD from three wards of three seats apiece, to nine wards of one seat each. It’s almost a decade since Simms and other inner city and north end community activists proposed precisely that change in ward boundaries, so that a more diverse field of candidates without a political party affiliation or deep pockets could have a shot at winning. Come November, unless there’s been a monumental upset, I’ll call Barr to revisit that issue.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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