This issue, I'd like to talk about the important role of a school board trustee.
20 years ago, when my daughter started kindergarten and well before she went through her postsecondary education, I was a working mom who couldn't volunteer in the classroom. I went to a parent council meeting to see what was going on, thinking that's what most parents did. Needless to say, I was warmly welcomed and encouraged to join this surprisingly small group who were interested in that grassroots level of school involvement. Before I knew it, I was chairing the committee and the following year I became chair of our board's liaison committee of school councils. Little did I know at that first meeting that by the time my son would start kindergarten two years later, I'd be running in the local municipal elections for school board trustee – nor could I have imagined that 17 years later I would be serving as president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association!
With some encouragement, I filed my papers with the local municipal clerk's office. My kids helped to deliver candidate flyers around our small town and in the neighbouring townships that I hoped to represent on the school board. My son even created artwork for my campaign signs – signs that I still keep as mementos. No one then knew how much of our family time this role would consume but despite what some may call "missed time," my kids have a solid understanding of how privileged we are to have the education system we have. They know the importance of contributing to our communities in order to guide the directions they grow in, and that we all need to make our own contributions in order to shape the future.
The local education community is better as a result of the leadership provided by people who live in their communities. All trustees have their own stories as to how and why they set out to serve, and they all are determined to leave the system better than they found it.
Visiting classrooms during last October's Local Government Week, and talking about the role of school board trustees, I wondered how I would make it sound interesting to grade 5 social studies classes. With the help of OPSBA's great resources, I shared some slides that walked us through the history of Ontario's oldest form of democratically elected community representatives – starting from the time when local farmers and citizens came together in 1807 to ensure that their community provided for the education of their children. Even then, they knew the importance of education to the ongoing success of our society. From the one-room schoolhouses of the 19th century to the larger accessible and technologically advanced facilities of today, our students, their schools, their needs, and the priorities of boards have evolved tremendously, but the value of local input has not. A strong democracy only exists when we have individuals who understand and represent the needs and interests of their communities – as seen so clearly through the work of locally elected school board trustees.
Posing questions to those grade 5 students, I was amazed by the wisdom of their thoughtful answers. In response to the questions, "What do you think school board trustees do?" and "Why do you think someone would want to run for public office?" they showed incredible insight into the commitment of trustees as they serve their communities: "Because they want to help kids." "Because they need to make sure kids have what they need at school," and my personal favourite, "Because they want our schools to be the best." At one school, the teacher challenged the students to think about the skills needed to be a trustee and they immediately recognized the future value of the reading, math and public speaking skills they practice.
This year will see not only a provincial election, but also a municipal election, where Ontarians will elect their municipal councils and mayors along with their school board trustees. This presents a great opportunity for Ontarians to get involved by considering running for office, most certainly to learn about the candidates in their community, and at minimum to get out and vote and contribute to the outcome of the democratic process. Last election showed an active interest in the role from candidates across the province, and I hope we see this grow this election.
While trustees are elected by constituents in their own electoral jurisdictions, once in office, the Education Act requires that they are responsible to all students in the district, not just their own. This governance role is unique – and important for those running for this office to understand. Decisions are made as a board. The governance role intentionally avoids operations issues, leaving those to staff and administration.
Trustees hold school districts accountable to provide universally accessible education for all students, regardless of their ethnic, racial, or cultural backgrounds; social or economic status; gender; individual exceptionality or religious preference. Sound governance practice creates the conditions to set and uphold policies and strategic directions, balance budgets, lobby for local board needs and plan with partners for school accommodations: all to help students achieve success and well-being. It's a tall order – are you up for it?