The battle for spots on the Calgary’s public school board could quite interesting this fall.
Photograph by: Ted Rhodes , Calgary Herald
When it comes to the ballot box, school board trustee positions can be a bit of an afterthought to voters marking an X by their chosen mayoral and aldermanic candidates.
But with a popular mayor in Naheed Nenshi running for re-election in October, and nearly all city council incumbents signalling intentions to do the same, some observers believe the city’s public school board vote will be the race to watch.
Provincial funding cuts, controversies over Calgary Board of Education spending decisions and administration, and school shortages in the deep suburbs are sparking growing interest in public education.
Jyoti Gondek is one those parents drawn into fray. Initial concerns over CBE plans to jack bus fees for some students last year (a plan later aborted), led her to question broader budgeting processes.
Frustrated at not being able to figure out how the school board “works,” or how to exact change, she began e-mailing her friends. It turned into an informal newsletter that counts dozens of recipients.
Now her attention is turning to the Oct. 21 election.
She won’t be running, but in the next six weeks she will be launching a project (details to come) to urge Calgarians to take a real interest in the CBE, and consider carefully who they should vote for.
“My firm belief is that this is the year that we can make change happen, because people are so frustrated with their kid’s education,” said Gondek, whose daughter attends a northwest elementary school.
“This is the year when the election will be about the school board, if we do this right.”
Gondek has been careful not to affiliate herself with any education group, but she’s no lightweight. She is Ward 3 Ald. Jim Stevenson’s campaign manager, is a member of the Calgary Planning Commission, and teaches at the University of Calgary.
Recent weeks have seen a number of potential trustee candidates emerge. Those considering a run include Judy Hehr, a former elementary school principal and mother of Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr.
Judy Hehr said she is “really strongly leaning” toward running in Wards 8 and 9, which are currently held by the CBE chairwoman Pat Cochrane. She will make her decision over the next month.
Rick Lundy, a well-known health-care patient advocate, says he will run in Wards 3 and 4, which are currently held by CBE vice-chair Lynn Ferguson.
Larry Leach, with the Association for Responsive Trusteeship in Calgary Schools, a group critical of the CBE, is running in Wards 5 and 10.
They are not alone. There are at least three people who say they are set to run in Wards 12 and 14, and at least one person in Wards 1 and 2.
Of the current turstees, Ward 11 and 13 trustee Sheila Taylor, who has often voted against the majority at the board table, is the only one who has formally announced she will run again. Taylor is holding a fundraiser this month.
Cochrane, who was first elected in 1999, said she will decide “very soon” what she will do.
“For me, it’s always things happening in my own life, personal life,” she said of what she will consider in making her decision. “What do I want to do at this stage in my life, what are other opportunities that are being offered to me.”
Those hoping for a major bump in interest in the school board election face daunting prospects, however.
The big problem is that 70 per cent of the electorate don’t have children in school. And school boards haven’t had taxation powers since 1995.
“The reality is people are not engaged in school district issues, in general. Busy parents and busy citizens,” said Dale Hudjik, a close observer of the Edmonton public school board.
But he notes school board elections can make waves. The 2010 election in Edmonton saw just three of nine incumbents return, after five chose to retire and one was upset by Sarah Hoffman, who is now public school board chair.
The CBE has not had a smooth ride over the last 2.5 years. Critics continue to point to the expensive new downtown headquarters, which will cost $285 million over 20 years to lease and operate.
A recent 5-2 decision by trustees to allocate at least $1 million for non-unionized staff and management salary increases incensed parents and led Education Minister Jeff Johnson to say he can’t “believe anyone would be that stupid.”
Fees were a dominant issue last year, when for the first time trustees did not approve them separately from the budget, and instead left the decision-making in the hands of bureaucrats.
An initial decision to charge the parents of alternative program students significantly more to ride the yellow bus drew a rebuke from those parents, and the CBE reversed its position.
And there’s been criticism of too much trustee work being done in private, and not in public.
The school board, however, can point to continued strong test scores for CBE students, compared to the provincial average.
Some trustees who have been in the crossfire argue their job is to act as governors, not managers; they are there to set policy and then let administration follow those policies and do their jobs.
In October, there will also be external factors at play. The province has frozen most grants and slashed others.
The CBE is going to receive roughly the same amount of money next budget year as this year.
Problem is costs are going up and there will be another 3,000 students enrolled, raising concerns about job position cuts and larger class sizes.
The province came to a tentative agreement with teachers, but the CBE doesn’t like the deal. It’s unclear what will happen if all 62 school boards in the province don’t sign on by the May 13 deadline.
Just a couple months ago, Wards 1 and 2 trustee Joy Bowen-Eyre was gung-ho to run again. Now she’s not so sure, she said, concerned that school boards in Alberta are losing power.
Districts have no taxation abilities. And teacher labour agreements are now, at least partly, being negotiated by the province.
“What I am concerned about for the future is what does the future of school boards look like,” Bowen-Eyre said. “Will school boards be in existence five years, 10 years from now?”