The current elections for Manitoba school trustees would not be happening if the provincial government’s proposed education reform bill had passed into law.
And although the province ultimately backed down over public outcry to Bill 64, which would have eliminated all English-language school boards and replaced them with a central education authority, people running in Winnipeg’s largest school district say it continues to have an impact on the Oct. 26 vote.
“I feel like the events of the last few years, with the provincial government’s stance on public education, have really galvanized some folks to take the personal and financial risks” of running for office, said Rebecca Chambers, who is running in Winnipeg School Division Ward 4.
Currently, three out of nine seats in the division are vacant. Two of those, including the one Chambers is seeking, have been empty since their former trustees were elected to the provincial legislature in 2019.
Board chair Betty Edel says it is not normal for a school district to operate with a third of its seats vacant.
“During the Bill 64 and the pandemic, I don’t know if I’d say anything was normal,” she said.
The Winnipeg School Division had planned to hold a byelection in March 2020 to fill the vacant seats in Wards 3 and 4, despite objections from the province that those positions might be axed in the coming round of reforms.
The arrival of COVID-19 in the province that same month led the government to put those plans on hold indefinitely. Since then, a third seat became vacant when the board voted to remove the trustee in ward five for failing to attend regular meetings.
After the province unveiled Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act, the ensuing public consultation process brought together a wide range of people opposed to the changes proposed by the government, says Melanie Janzen, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba.
“We had rural and urban folks opposed,” Jantzen said. “We had many school organizations, superintendents, trustees, school boards, teacher societies, parent groups — Bill 64 is a flash point for paying attention to public education.”
Trustees represent the local voice of community members, provinding a direct conduit to policy makers so people can voice concerns about what they want to see in their schools, Janzen says.
In addition to increasing awareness of school boards, Bill 64 might be motivating more people to put their names forward in this year’s elections.
“I’ve had multiple community members approach me about running, and I’ve heard people asking who their school trustee candidates will be so they can look it up,” said Jennifer Chen, who is the current trustee Ward 6 in the Winnipeg School Division, but is not seeking re-election in the fall.
Tamara Kuly, who is running for the seat in Ward 7, says she became heavily involved in her children’s school out of concern over Bill 64 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is the first time running for office for the financial consultant and mother of two, although she has worked on other campaigns, including Melissa Chung-Mowatt’s, who ran for the NDP in the federal riding of Winnipeg North last year.
“It’s not a space that I’m super familiar with or super comfortable in, but it’s something I’m willing to try,” she said.
As in the Winnipeg School Division, there are a higher than normal number of vacancies in divisions across the province due to the pandemic and Bill 64, says Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association and a trustee in the Interlake School Division.
There are 38 school divisions in Manitoba, with approximately 290 trustee positions up for grabs. Of those, about 20 are currently vacant, Campbell says.
It’s too soon to know exactly how many names will be on the ballot on Oct. 26. Unlike candidates for municipal offices, school trustees don’t need to register ahead of the nomination period, which runs from Sept. 14-20.
The underlying sentiment when you talk about this coming election is the fact that had Bill 64 succeeded there wouldn’t be an election. When you frame it that way, that is jarring for people and it gets people talking about it, whether or not they’re considering candidacy.”– Alan Campbell, president, Manitoba School Boards Association
While races in Winnipeg might have a higher number of candidates than in past races, that may not be the case across the province, particularly in rural areas, Campbell says.
Many people whom Campbell met during the debates over Bill 64 don’t necessarily have the time or ability to take on the job of a trustee.
“The underlying sentiment when you talk about this coming election is the fact that had Bill 64 succeeded there wouldn’t be an election,” he said.
“When you frame it that way, that is jarring for people and it gets people talking about it, whether or not they’re considering candidacy.”
In the last year, Manitoba has gone from “an existential crisis in local school board governance” to conversations about what the partnership between school boards and the provincial government needs to look like, Campbell says.
In April, Education Minister Wayne Ewasko revealed a scaled down education reform plan that left school boards in place.
The province has put together a consultation team as it moves to phase out the education property tax and replace it with a different public education funding model.
Those are conversations that prospective trustees such as Chambers will participate in if they are elected in the fall.
“I’m really excited for the next few years in public education in Winnipeg,” Chambers said.
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