As we all know, 2018 is an election year in Ontario. At the municipal level, the citizens of Ottawa will be asked to vote for a Mayor, for a new batch of City Councillors, and for School Trustees in four different districts: Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB), Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario (CEPEO), and Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE).
Ottawa residents will need to make electoral decisions and cast votes in 23 councillor wards, and in as many as 37 school zones, from east to west to south (12 English Public – OCDSB; 10 English Catholic – OCSB; 7 French Public – CEPEO; and 8 French Catholic – CECCE). This may create confusion in the minds of many eligible voters, which typically leads to a situation in which only a relatively small number of citizens cast ballots for School Trustees. Yet, Trustees play a vital role in their school boards’ governance and decision making, and serve as accountable elected officials and community leaders.
Here are four key questions to ask and practical issues to explore prior to the upcoming election [try to assess where your preferred candidate stands on these subjects!]:
- How to best meet the needs of students, parents and communities?
Ottawa schools are not always as “user-friendly” as they should be, i.e., not serving their target populations in an effective manner. Students and parents often find it difficult to navigate bureaucratic processes, due to a mix of “red tape” and inconsistent application of rules and procedures (e.g., placement in special education programs, access to transportation, Individual Education Plans, etc.). Communities are not always meaningfully consulted, even when fundamental decisions such as the closure or relocation of schools are at stake. Equity is a handy buzzword, but more often than not decisions are made by pitting one group against another. Within this context, how do the Trustee candidates plan to fix the problem, so everyone’s fundamental needs are met?
- How to foster innovation and to support teachers’ professional growth?
I am sure everyone would agree that teachers have a tremendously important role in children’s life and their overall education. Knowledgeable, well-prepared and happy teachers are more likely to have a positive impact on students and to contribute to a productive educational environment. The teachers – as well as all support staff – should be given a “licence to innovate,” appropriate funding for professional development, and the respect they deserve. In too many cases, teachers are asked to implement policies that are unclear, unreasonable or inflexible. What are the strategies and tactics proposed by Trustee candidates to make teachers’ job easier and more purposeful, which ultimately will be beneficial to learners?
- How to fix the inner workings of school boards?
To use a quote from Gene I. Maeroff’s well-known book titled School Boards in America (2010), “all too often school boards get so tangled in thickets of minutiae that they neglect to walk the straight course that they should follow in the pursuit of solid education. And the underpinnings of democracy are weakened when students receive anything less. […] There should be no alternative to governing well.” It is true that Ontario school boards are constrained by provincial legislation and rules in certain aspects of their operations, such as financial allocations per student, or standard curricula. Yet, nothing should prevent the boards from ensuring long-term and effective planning, performance measurement, and sound accountability practices – many of which are lacking currently. What do the Trustee candidates propose to increase the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency of Ottawa’s school boards?
- (Very importantly!) How to restore public trust in the school boards?
It’s no secret that we’re experiencing a large and growing “democratic deficit” in Ontario school boards, and Ottawa is no exception. While it is taxpayers who are supporting financially all public schools, there is a keen sense that decision-making processes suffer from a lack of democracy, and are inaccessible to the regular citizen. Too many critically important decisions for students and communities (e.g., school closures, changes to special education programs, textbook adoption, new curriculum standards, etc.) are either made behind closed doors, or through a process where public input is deliberately restricted. Something has got to change – and the new Trustees have a fundamental duty to rebuild the essential democratic linkages between citizens and board employees, who are in essence public servants. How to do that, is a fundamental question to all those that aspire to elected office.
In the coming months, you will listen to various arguments and positions expressed by Trustee candidates, in all of Ottawa’s school boards. Some of the views and proposals will be well articulated, while others will be mere reactions to their opponents’ statements or to the news cycle. Irrespective of the driving force behind their positions, please ask yourself if the people that seek to represent you answer any of the above questions in a meaningful and satisfactory manner. The future of our children and of our communities depends to a large degree on electing the right people as School Trustees for the next four years.