School Trustees Should Focus on Education, Not Politics

School Trustees Should Focus on Education, Not Politics
In October 2021, Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) trustees launched a complete review of every single book in all school libraries to ensure that students aren’t exposed to “inappropriate” or “harmful” material. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Michael Zwaagstra

School board trustees have an important role: They must ensure that students receive a high-quality education.

For this to happen, a number of very important decisions must be made. Trustees are responsible for striking budgets, hiring district leaders, selecting appropriate educational programs, and providing students with bus transportation. Being a trustee is a serious commitment and parents have every right to expect them to remain focused on their primary role.

Unfortunately, some trustees appear to be more interested in playing politics than in doing their jobs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB), where over the last year trustees have provided an object lesson on what not to do.

For example, last October trustees embarked on what might be the biggest make-work project in that board’s history—a complete review of every single book in all elementary and secondary school libraries to ensure that students aren’t exposed to “inappropriate” or “harmful” material.

Not only was this initiative a colossal waste of staff time and money that could be used for more productive things, but it led to a truly disastrous board meeting involving one of their teachers.

In January, Carolyn Burjoski, a WRDSB teacher with more than 20 years of experience, appeared as a delegation at a board meeting. Naively assuming that the board of trustees was sincerely interested in expunging library books that contained inappropriate content, Burjoski read out sexually explicit excerpts from two books from WRDSB libraries.

Instead of taking her concerns seriously, board chair Scott Piatkowski accused Burjoski of violating the provincial human rights code and summarily stopped her presentation.

By publicly accusing Burjoski of delivering “hateful” remarks, Piatkowski exposed himself to a defamation lawsuit. Unsurprisingly, Burjoski is now suing Piatkowski and the rest of the board for $1.75 million.

Making the evening even worse was the fact that the board of trustees held its entire meeting on Zoom, even though public health regulations at the time allowed in-person meetings. Had the board meeting been in person, it’s possible that cooler heads might have prevailed since Zoom meetings make it much harder to discuss controversial topics where nuance is important.

Earlier this month, WRDSB descended even further into absurdity when it suspended trustee Mike Ramsay for allegedly violating the board’s code of conduct. But the board refused to release any information about why Ramsay was suspended.
According to Ramsay, he was suspended because a trustee didn’t like it when he retweeted articles that were critical of how the board handled Carolyn Burjoski’s presentation. Ironically, this meant that Ramsay, the board’s only non-white trustee, was effectively precluded from voting on a motion he helped draft requesting more information about how critical race theory was being taught in WRDSB schools.

Clearly, there is something seriously wrong with the WRDSB board. One likely explanation is that trustees are more interested in positioning themselves for higher-level political office than in actually managing the schools.

For example, two WRDSB trustees ran unsuccessfully for the NDP in the recent provincial election. Meanwhile, the board chair is a past president of Waterloo’s NDP constituency association, who twice ran unsuccessfully for that party in previous federal elections.

When school trustees use their positions as a stepping stone to higher political office (or as a consolation prize when they cannot win anywhere else), we should not be surprised that they make poor decisions about education. That’s what we can expect from people who never really wanted the job in the first place.

While WRDSB is a particularly egregious example of poor governance, there are plenty of other Canadian school boards that are similarly dysfunctional. Considering how important education is to a healthy society, we have every right to insist that school boards work effectively to achieve that objective.

Anyone thinking of running to be a school trustee this fall must ask themselves why they want this position. If potential trustees are more focused on burnishing their own progressive bona fides than on doing the hard work of improving public education for Canadian children, they should find something else to do.

Public education is too important to be governed by mediocre politicians who don’t put the needs of students first.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of "A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning."