Democracy is a living concept that is only meaningful if citizens take up its call for participation, not only when preparing to mark a ballot in the municipal elections on Nov. 15, but as the elected stewards of our communities and schools assume their responsibilities.
One of the responsibilities of mayors, councillors and school trustees is to keep the public informed and give them opportunities to contribute to conversations in council chambers and around school-board tables.
If voters feel ill-informed about the decision-making of the Greater Victoria school trustees, this is not entirely their fault. Sadly, five of the present trustees, who have served in these positions for many terms and who regularly vote together as a majority block, have fought against improving the transparency of their decision-making process and engaging with the public. During the three-year term they are now completing, these trustees have stalled the approval of a public question period at regular monthly board meetings.
These same five trustees also resisted a motion put forward by a more recently elected board member to have their votes recorded. Labour Council president Michael Eso wrote a scathing letter in the Times Colonist (Feb. 19, 2012), reminding these trustees that they are accountable to the public, which has a right to know their voting records.
The motion was reintroduced at the next public board meeting and passed unanimously.
In recent months, during and after the teachers’ strike, Times Colonist columnists (Geoff Johnson, Oct. 1, 2014; Jack Knox, Oct. 25, 2014) have suggested that school boards might no longer be relevant because of their limited powers. The provincial government, they argue, makes the important decisions about finance and curriculum, while local boards can do little more than implement provincial policies.
When the recent teachers’ strike ended, public school boards around the province wrote letters appealing to Education Minister Peter Fassbender to leave in place funds that were allocated before it was known that schools would not open the first week of September. Underfunded districts needed these funds to meet the expenses of the coming school year. As Fassbender turned down these appeals, it would be easy to agree with those who argue that school boards are no longer relevant.
But that argument is wrong-headed. Our current provincial government might resist engaging in dialogue with local school boards, but governments are eventually replaced. We have had public schools in B.C. since 1872, and local school boards have played a vital role in informing the Ministry of Education of the particular needs of their districts.
The trustees we elect on Nov. 15 have the democratic responsibility to communicate openly and honestly with the citizens whose taxes pay for our public education system, as well as with the ministry, whether or not the ministry responds.
Unfortunately, the ministry does respond quickly when a school board recommends a measure that will cut costs. In 2012, the five long-serving trustees referred to above voted to write to then-education minister George Abbott requesting that the “discriminatory“ numerical limits on special-needs students in a classroom be taken away. Abbott brought forward a bill that accomplished this, a bill that the Supreme Court of B.C. has since declared illegal and which motivated teachers across the province to go on strike.
Public schools are vital to our communities and we need to elect those trustees who are best qualified to be stewards of our schools, those who will carry out the duties of their office in an open, responsive and accountable manner.
School trustees have a vital role to play in our society beyond balancing budgets, and your informed votes can make a difference. Information about trustee candidates can be found in local media. Most candidates have Facebook pages or websites through which they may be contacted, and the Victoria School District 61 website gives the email addresses of all incumbent trustees who are seeking re-election.
I urge you to contact the candidates directly to ask what they think about the issues that matter to you.
Starla Anderson, Ed.D., is a retired educator who lobbies for quality public education.