LORETTE, Man. –
The race for the position of school trustee in some parts of rural Manitoba is not much of a competition at all.
A lack of candidates seeking election in some divisions means those who did put their name forward have been acclaimed into the job while in some other cases vacant seats will have to be filled by appointees.
It’s a stark difference compared to some of the races taking place in school divisions within Winnipeg where the slate of candidates means voters will get to choose who they want for the job.
In and around the town of Lorette, Man. election signs for mayor and council pop out to passers-by but area resident Ken Siwak hasn’t seen very many for candidates running for the elected position of school trustee.
“I guess they’re not interested. I guess if people want their say, run for the position,” Siwak said.
In two of three wards in the Seine River School Division where Siwak votes, five candidates have been acclaimed because there’s no one else running against them, while one seat has been left vacant.
In the third ward, six candidates are running for three available school trustee seats.
“I think it’s somewhat concerning but it’s actually not surprising,” said John Wiens, Dean Emeritus in the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Education.
Wiens said while vacancies and acclamations aren’t unheard of in school trustee elections, the numbers this year in rural areas are difficult to ignore.
It comes in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding Bill 64, which under former Premier Brian Pallister proposed to eliminate the role of school trustees, before Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government withdrew the bill after Pallister stepped down amid backlash across the province.
“I think people like to, particularly if they’re stepping into something for the first time, they would like to have something that’s somewhat established and predictable and so on and I think there’s a level of unpredictability about the way things are going to happen,” Wiens said.
He’s quick to point out Bill 64 also had the opposite impact because it sparked a renewed interest in the position for some people.
Across Manitoba, 94 incumbents and 41 new trustees have been acclaimed into the position due to a lack of challengers.
That’s 47 per cent — nearly half — of the 285 available seats reported so far to the Manitoba School Boards Association but is comparable to the last election in 2018.
A total of 13 boards have been wholly elected under acclamation, about double the number compared to 2018 but not far off the 11 boards that were wholly elected under acclamation in 2010.
In the Hanover School Division southeast of Winnipeg, three of nine available seats have been filled by acclamation.
Carisa Klassen, a current member of the board of trustees who is not seeking re-election after serving one term, told CTV News Winnipeg the decision was a personal one.
“I’m going back to post-secondary to gain a master’s (degree),” Klassen said, who noted she also has middle school children.
Klassen said Bill 64 wasn’t a factor for her and believes she still would’ve been able to contribute if she had chosen to seek re-election.
“I think that my contribution for Hanover School Division was largely bridging a gap of communication between senior administration and my community members,” Klassen said.
Jeff Friesen, a farmer who was acclaimed as a trustee in the division in one of the seats Klassen held, declined an on-camera interview but told CTV News Winnipeg via phone he fought hard against Bill 64 and chose to run because he’s a strong believer the community should have a voice in how their schools are run.
“If having school boards are important to areas then we have to have people who are willing to step up to do the job,” Friesen said, noting he’d like to see more schools in smaller communities so students don’t have to commute into Steinbach.
But the number of appointments that will be required to fill vacant seats due to a lack of candidates has increased this year.
Approximately 10 per cent of 295 available school trustee seats have been left vacant with 30 seats that will need to be filled by appointees, just under three times the number of appointments compared to 2018.
It’s a task, under the Public Schools Act, that is typically carried out by the newly-elected board unless a majority of seats on a board need to be filled.
“It’s more than appointment because they really have to recruit them,” Wiens said. “They actually have to go out of their way and find somebody and tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘would you be willing to do this.’”
He said he’s not personally aware of a situation where an appointee couldn’t be found to fill a vacant seat.
Manitobans go to the polls to elect municipal governments and school board trustees on Oct. 26.
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