Michael Zwaagstra: School Trustee Elections Are Important for Everyone

Michael Zwaagstra: School Trustee Elections Are Important for Everyone
Having a well-educated society is important to the long-term viability of a country. School trustees are responsible for setting the direction for all the schools under their authority. (Brian Guest/Shutterstock)
Michael Zwaagstra

It’s election time for school boards across much of Canada. Voters in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island will soon elect a new group of school trustees.

Historically, school board elections don’t generate a lot of interest or excitement. Voter turnout rates are often below 20 percent and acclamations are surprisingly common. Many voters, particularly those who don’t have children in public schools, often assume that there isn’t much reason to take an interest in local school board elections. But they are wrong.

The reality is that education should be of interest to everyone. Having a well-educated society is important to the long-term viability of a country. School trustees are responsible for setting the direction for all the schools under their authority. In some school divisions, that can be hundreds of schools. School trustees must approve budgets, hire key personnel, determine policy priorities, and ensure proper transportation for students. These are significant responsibilities.

Not only is it important to vote in trustee elections, but citizens need to do their homework and take the time to thoroughly research the prospective candidates. The following are some key factors to consider before you cast your ballot in the upcoming elections.

First, find out why each candidate is running for public office. Are they genuinely interested in the school system or are they simply using the trustee position as a stepping stone for higher office? A red flag would be a candidate who has run unsuccessfully several times before at the federal or provincial level. Candidates with one eye on higher office are not likely to make good trustees.

Second, and very important, voters should support candidates who pledge to make academic excellence the top priority. We must never forget that the primary purpose of schools is to provide students with academic education. Trustee candidates should commit to ensuring that schools have a proper focus on the academic basics. If they don’t, it’s reasonable to question whether they would be a good fit for the trustee role.

In some trustee races, particularly in Ontario and British Columbia, there is a significant amount of debate about candidates who are running on a so-called "anti-woke" agenda. Predictably, their candidacies have attracted a lot of opposition from people on the left, particularly those who consider themselves woke. Critics argue that anti-woke candidates are seeking to impose their beliefs on students and staff.

However, a closer look at many of these candidates indicates that far from seeking to bring politics into the school system, they in fact want to take politics out of education. There is nothing unreasonable about expecting teachers to leave their political ideologies at the classroom door.

On a related point, be wary of candidates who pledge to bring an “anti-oppressive” or “anti-racist” lens to their roles. While it is obviously good to oppose racism, the term “anti-racist” has been co-opted by woke ideologues who think that it’s a good idea to see everything through a racial lens. The last thing we need are trustees who make assumptions about which students are privileged and which ones are not based solely on their racial backgrounds.

Instead, it makes far more sense to treat all students as unique individuals. We need trustees who focus more on what unites Canadians rather than on what divides them. There has been far too much division in Canada over the last few years.

Trustee candidates should also demonstrate at least a basic level of competence. They should have had experience serving on volunteer boards and they should be able to point to some significant achievements in their careers. While there are no formal job requirements to be a trustee, voters have a right to expect trustees to be capable of doing the job.

Finally, look at what trustee candidates are saying about the spending of taxpayers’ money. School boards are in charge of multimillion-dollar budgets, and they must be held accountable for their decisions.

It’s perfectly reasonable to ask potential trustees about their budget priorities. Be wary of candidates who state, or imply, that money is no object or that they don’t think much about money. That is a clear sign of someone who doesn’t know how to set priorities—or a budget. Such school board candidates are unworthy of your vote.

This fall, take the time to vote. Before you vote, educate yourself about each of the candidates. It matters who serves on our school boards.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of "A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning."