Sudden interest Unintended result of Tories’ failed attempt to eliminate local input in plan to overhaul public education system appears to be increased attention in role played by school board trustees
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Manitobans stopped taking school boards for granted when the Tories proposed to dismantle them, but the upcoming municipal election will provide insight into whether interest can outlast the backlash to Bill 64.
“I am optimistic,” said John Wiens, a career educator who is currently teaching a course on the politics of education at the University of Manitoba. “Because I think we have a pretty good slate of people running (for trustee)…. We’re going to have some pretty strong, engaged school boards who will work very hard for their communities.”
At the same time, Wiens said he is sorry about losing experienced trustees who have chosen not to campaign this time around because they feel exhausted, undervalued and unappreciated in the wake of the province’s campaign to scrap their seats.
Residents from all corners of the province rallied around concerns about losing elected leaders who manage school budgets and programs when the Education Modernization Act was released on March 15, 2021.
Countless municipality leaders, supported by rural and urban councils who passed motions explicitly condemning the plans, openly criticized the province. More than 500 presenters — a record number in the history of Manitoba’s legislative assembly — registered to speak about the controversial legislation at the committee stage in 2021.
Former premier Brian Pallister’s blueprint, which aimed to replace Manitoba’s 36 English-language boards with a central education authority made up of government appointees, was thrown out before those proceedings could take place.
If Pallister had it his way, there would be no need for the school board elections scheduled for later this month.
Bill 64 would have ensured voters could check boxes only beside their preferred city councillor, mayoral candidate and, in some areas, reeve on Oct. 26.
“The word gobsmacked comes to mind,” said Wendy Bloomfield, a longtime trustee from St. Norbert, who has served on a school board longer than any other incumbent colleague in the metro-Winnipeg area.
“It was just such a deviation from not only what was in the K to 12 review, but what people were anticipating. We were anticipating, perhaps, the loss of taxing authority, we were anticipating, perhaps, some significant amalgamation, but (this) was just so beyond what anybody was anticipating and I don’t think it took very long for people to start to realize the potential impact.”
Following the legislation’s demise, school board officials and observers claim there is a newfound appreciation for the role of elected boards that make decisions about school budgets and programs. They are celebrating a slight increase in the number people running for school trustee in Winnipeg and, as a result, a drop in the number of acclamations.
“It was just such a deviation from not only what was in the K to 12 review, but what people were anticipating.”–Wendy Bloomfield
The overall roster of trustee hopefuls in wards in the Winnipeg, Seven Oaks, St. James-Assiniboia, Pembina Trails, Louis Riel and River East Transcona school boards has risen by five, in comparison to 2018 statistics.
A surge of interest in trusteeship in the Winnipeg School Division, Manitoba’s most densely-populated district, is almost entirely responsible. There are 35 applicants for nine available jobs in 2022 — a record in city archives dating back to the late 1990s and more than double the number of registrants who signed up in 2018.
Tara Smith called Bill 64 “a huge motivator” that contributed to her mounting a campaign for trustee in St. James, where her two children attend elementary school.
“I spent a lot of time being angry and frustrated and very actively fighting against it and running for trustee is a way for me to actually do something,” said Smith, a high school teacher who wants to wear both her parent and educator hats at the board table.
“I spent a lot of time being angry and frustrated and very actively fighting against it and running for trustee is a way for me to actually do something.”–Tara Smith
Smith said it is critical for Winnipeggers to be able to continue electing people who live in their neighbourhoods to advocate for the school programs and opportunities local residents want their children to be able to access. In her experience, local trustees have been communicative and receptive to community-member concerns.
“Bill 64 and the pandemic really shone a light on the importance of stepping forward and becoming an advocate for one’s community, whether or not you’re a parent, it is identified by those who have put their names forward that school board trusteeship is a very effective way to be a respected and strong voice for one’s community,” said Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association.
Campbell said he has, however, heard from many people who value the work of trustees, but do not want to pursue the roles themselves.
With 97 per cent of all trustee campaign seat races reported, the school boards association has confirmed the majority of disclosed wards in Manitoba have been acclaimed and 17 per cent require appointments. The latter happens when there are either not enough or no candidates running in a ward.
The overall appointment rate is expected to be around 10 per cent in 2022, almost three times the total in 2018. That figure has hovered around four per cent during the past three municipal elections.
Rural trustee Gordon Wilson’s replacement will have to be appointed because no one entered the race for Ward 3 in Manitoba’s Turtle River School Division.
Wilson, who has been a trustee for 40 years, said there is no doubt many people have “leftover anxiety” from Bill 64; fear that the government may still intervene in board operations are part of the reason why the 71-year-old is not running for re-election.
While the province has taken away boards’ abilities to raise local education property taxes in recent years and provincial teacher bargaining means trustees will no longer have a role to play in negotiating contracts, Wilson said he believes there will always be a need for trustees.
U of M’s Wiens echoed those comments. The professor called trustees his “eyes and ears into communities” when he was a public school superintendent.
“How we educate our kids and why we educate our kids and when we educate our kids is really everybody’s concern and everybody’s business and trustees provide a mechanism to make sure we hear what people think about things and what’s important to them,” said the faculty of education dean emeritus at Manitoba’s largest university.
Thirteen school boards — Beautiful Plains, Border Land, Flin Flon, Interlake, Kelsey, Lakeshore, Mystery Lake, Park West, Pine Creek, Swan Valley, Turtle Mountain, Turtle River, Whiteshell — have been wholly elected under acclamation in 2022 due to limited competition.
Campbell noted the rise of social media and intense partisanship have resulted in elected officials of all kinds facing vitriol online. For that reason, it is no surprise some people are not interested in being in the public eye, he said.
Since March 2020, trustees have heard heated complaints from both constituents with concerns about lax COVID-19 protocols in schools and those who vehemently oppose any public-health measures.
Two men who have been fined for repeatedly breaching public health orders throughout the pandemic have launched trustee campaigns in Winnipeg. Patrick Allard and Todd McDougall have earned notoriety for their fringe views.
Allard told the Free Press one of the reasons he was motivated to run is because the WSD board lacks “opposing voices.”
Following a nearly four-decade career as a trustee, Bloomfield said she thinks the biggest misconception about the role is that it allows someone to push their own agenda and act as an independent official.
“You’re really only one person and your biggest impact is by learning how to work collaboratively with others to make change,” said the experienced trustee in the Seine River School Division.
The major responsibilities of trusteeship include ensuring policies are reflective of the local community, amending the written rules when necessary, “and monitoring that we’re actually living up to (them),” she said, adding regular board meeting attendance is critical.
Bloomfield also noted budget oversight and ongoing communication with parents, teachers and other stakeholders are key duties.
As they begin their 2022-26 terms, new trustees are expected to navigate the aftermath of pandemic learning disruptions, the introduction of a new education funding model, and relationships that remain strained between K-12 employees who were for and against Pallister’s failed education reforms.
Educational assistant Brenda Bage, who is running for trustee in Winnipeg, said she has seen first-hand the academic and social-emotional learning losses that children have experienced in recent years.
“A lot of kids did not do well with remote learning and those that did are not ahead, so we have a varying level of skills in the classroom. We need to bring all the kids back up to where they should be,” said Bage, who wants to provide a school-aged parent perspective on the River East Transcona School Division’s board.
“A lot of kids did not do well with remote learning and those that did are not ahead, so we have a varying level of skills in the classroom. We need to bring all the kids back up to where they should be.”–Brenda Bage
“Kids are facing an immense amount more mental-health issues than they ever have. The schools need to really make sure that we’re involving experts to help kids work through,” the mother added.
After launching her campaign in St. James, Smith said she has heard from voters speaking frankly who have told her they usually pick a trustee at random or by selecting “a name that sounds nice.”
The trustee hopeful said she is optimistic the controversy around Bill 64 will encourage people to do their research and make informed choices in the upcoming races.
“Right now, parents are very invested. I think they’ve had such a deeper connection to their children’s education — because of the pandemic, with remote learning and having more insight into what’s happening (in schools),” she added.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.