Liberals seek to push trustee campaign oversight into spotlight
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The Manitoba Liberals are preparing a private member’s bill to introduce fundraising rules for school trustee candidates — the only people who can run for public office in the province with no oversight of campaign donors and expenses.
“We absolutely need campaign finance reform, because (the absence of rules) has opened the door for people who aren’t even Manitobans to influence our democratic process,” Liberal leader Dougald Lamont told the Free Press.
Unlike contestants running in municipal, provincial and federal elections, there are no laws that regulate who can contribute to a school board nominee’s campaign or how much money individuals can accept.
Residents running for trustee need to submit a list of at least 25 signatures from eligible voters in the ward in which they are seeking election to be included on a ballot.
Following a successful submission, the conduct of a nominee’s campaign “is at (their) discretion,” according to the City of Winnipeg’s 2022 candidate guide.
These contestants do not need to appoint an official agent or file audited statements with disclosures about contributions valued at $250 or more.
“We absolutely need campaign finance reform, because (the absence of rules) has opened the door for people who aren’t even Manitobans to influence our democratic process.”–Dougald Lamont
Given trustee hopefuls typically pay for their campaigns out-of-pocket or collect small donations from friends, family and neighbours, little attention has been paid to the lack of campaign regulations in the past.
However, the free-for-all model came under scrutiny this autumn, after a number of well-organized campaigns with matching websites and high-quality promotional videos led to the revelation a Toronto philanthropist was privately backing contestants in the Winnipeg School Division.
Walter Schroeder grew up in Winnipeg’s inner city before moving east and launching the credit rating company that made his fortune. After the businessman sold Dominion Bond Rating Service for a reported US$500 million in 2014, he and wife Maria devoted themselves to philanthropy.
The Schroeder Foundation estimates it spends more than $3 million on initiatives, including student scholarships and school nutrition subsidies, in Manitoba’s most highly-populated district every year.
The Free Press learned representatives for Schroeder met with numerous trustee hopefuls — none of whom were incumbents seeking re-election — in the lead-up to the Oct. 26 election and offered some of them financial support.
Schroeder did not publicly endorse candidates nor did he respond directly to requests for comment about his support.
The NDP education critic said the situation that unfolded during the fall school board race has exposed the need for “modernization.”
“To me, it doesn’t make sense that they don’t follow the same rules as we (MLAs) do, as a city councillor would… We can’t accept money from outside of the province,” said Nello Altomare (Transcona).
Education Minister Wayne Ewasko indicated he wants to have a discussion with K-12 stakeholders, including the Manitoba School Boards Association, about the matter.
“Our government stands on the side of transparency,” the minister added.
“To me, it doesn’t make sense that they don’t follow the same rules as we (MLAs) do, as a city councillor would… We can’t accept money from outside of the province”–Nello Altomare, NDP education critic
In recent months, the association that represents Manitoba’s 37 school boards has expressed hesitancy that implementing rules could interfere with the accessibility of running for trustee.
Association president Alan Campbell, however, said in a statement the advocacy organization would support changes that strengthen the ability of grassroots citizens to serve as trustees and support public confidence in elected voices.
Campbell noted existing models tend to promote post-election transparency by publishing campaign donor identities and sums after a race has wrapped up. The association is in favour of real-time reporting, he said.
“We therefore advocate that reporting of campaign contributions serve to become part of each candidate’s record during the campaign period itself, while we equally advocate that if limits are considered, these not be so onerous or disadvantageous as to restrict a candidate from running for office.”
The association spokesman urged lawmakers to explore Saskatchewan’s practice of authorizing individual school boards to establish their own campaign finance accountability frameworks.
Colin Roy, director of communications for the Manitoba Liberals, confirmed the party caucus has already undertaken consultations and plans to draft legislation that will be introduced “shortly.”
Lamont said there is more than enough time to make a change before the next Manitoba school board elections take place in 2026.