Artwork by Jessa Dupuis

Quick: what does a school board trustee do? How do they do it? Who’s running to be yours?

If you can’t answer, you are not alone. A fair number of voters will go to the polls this October without a clue. They won’t know who is running or what they stand for. They will pick a name at random or won’t bother to pick at all. They will tell themselves trustees don’t matter.

But are they right about that?

Trustees help allocate huge budgets. They appoint directors of education. They make decisions on staffing. They decide which schools need to be built, closed, or transitioned. They field thousands of complaints, concerns, and confusions from the public. Most importantly, they keep watch over our education system. They protect it, they guard it.

Think about it. You get to elect someone to oversee the running of a very specific, and very important, public service—education. There’s nobody specifically elected to keep watch over local prisons or infrastructure or health care. Maybe there should be?

You may scoff, but consider this: would our health care system be in such disarray if we had elected health care trustees? Imagine trustees weighing in on nursing shortages and home care. Imagine they had a say in how many long-term care facilities were to be opened and where. Imagine if they could decide—decide—that 70 kilometres is too far away from home for an elderly loved one to receive long-term care. School board trustees have made such decisions on behalf of children—to keep a school open, for instance, despite higher costs, rather than just bus kids further. Imagine our school system without the watchful eyes of trustees. Imagine our health care system under similar protection.

So why such apathy?

The province will spend some $32.4 billion on public education this year. About $3.4 billion of that will slosh through the Toronto District School Board alone, not to mention the Catholic and French boards. (The TDSB is the largest school board in Canada, and the fourth largest in North America.) All that to say, a lot of provincial money is at stake.

Some of that money is earmarked—or “enveloped,” in school board parlance—including some for special education and capital projects. But most of the funding pays for staff, says Annie Kidder, executive director of People For Education, a non-profit advocacy group based in Toronto. And boards, she says, make a lot of decisions about what kind of staff there will be and how they will be distributed. “There’s a misconception that the province controls every penny that’s spent,” says Kidder. “In fact, that is why it’s important to vote for school trustees—they make a lot of decisions.”

For instance, if your local school is small but has at least a part-time librarian, thank your school board trustees—they were the folks, not the province, who decided that every Toronto school needs one. If your school’s class sizes were smaller than provincially mandated during the pandemic, that’s thanks to trustees as well. Ditto if your school has a vice principal even though it doesn’t have the provincially mandated number of students to require one. Extra reading coaches, math coaches, graduation coaches, social workers, ESL teachers, ECEs, EAs: thank your trustees.

Trustees don’t just allocate the funding they get, they often advocate for more. “I don’t think it should just be, ‘Here—here are the dollars, cut or don’t cut,'” says Cathy Dandy, who served as trustee from 2006 to 2014 in Toronto-Danforth (she’s not running again). “It should be, ‘Well, if we say we’re going to do these things, what does it realistically cost?” Years ago, she says, the TDSB did a bottom-up analysis, dubbed the “Need to Succeed Budget,” that looked at what it would really cost to provide the education the province was promising. Dandy believes that kind of analysis should be a routine part of the budget process.

There is also a real effort to even things up among the schools. “We provide more resources in communities that need it,” says Chris Moise, who is the trustee in Toronto Centre, University-Rosedale, which includes Regent Park and St Jamestown. (He’s now running for council to replace the seat vacated by Kristyn Wong-Tam). He’s alert to the needs of the communities he serves, and brings motions to support them—most of his fellow trustees, he says, are also solidly behind equity initiatives.

That’s the thing, says Kidder: trustees bring local issues and knowledge to the table, but their duty is to act together, as one. “They make decisions in the best interests of all the students within the board,” she says.

Last year, the province moved to scrap all streaming during the first year of high school. That means starting this year, instead of separating students according to their perceived abilities, all grade nine students in the province will take academic level courses. The TDSB was ahead of the curve on this. In 2015, Robin Pilkey, trustee for Parkdale-High Park, moved a motion asking TDSB staff to look into how de-streaming could be accomplished. The board initiated pilots in a few schools, then began a gradual rollout in math and English. This year, practically all TDSB students in grades 9 and 10 are taking academic courses; streaming starts in grade 11.

“Research done by the TDSB showed streaming students into applied programs in grade 9 severely limited their post-secondary opportunities,” says Pilkey. Streaming decisions were being made in the middle of grade 8, at the same time other big decisions were being made—about which secondary school to go to and which courses to take. “Students change a lot between grade 8 and grade 11,” says Pilkey, “and limiting the choices and what they would be able to do in the future based on how they were in grade 8 is wrong.”

In another equity move, in 2020, Peel District School Board announced that it was changing entrance requirements for specialized schools, allowing Black and Indigenous students automatic entry as long as they met certain criteria. In May of this year, the TDSB also voted to end entrance requirements to specialized schools. Specialized schools offer elite programming on anything from music to math to sport to Africentric studies.

Whereas in past years, students had to audition, write essays, or be interviewed to get spots in these schools, starting this year in Toronto they only need to express an interest; if too many apply, there will be a lottery. “This new policy will ensure a greater number of students have access to these high quality programs and schools while reducing barriers that have long-prevented (sic) many students from even applying,” said the TDSB’s chair, Alexander Brown, in a press release.

Such moves have not been without controversy. Some Ontarians balked at the idea that math could be considered “subjective,” “racist” and “Eurocentric”—language used by Doug Ford’s own government to justify de-streaming. Others opposed Peel and Toronto’s dropping of entry requirements for specialty schools, decrying it as “racial rigging/manipulation.” In fact, the outrage spawned a nascent movement, “Guardian’s Vote,” which says on its website that it wants to see right-leaning trustees elected in Toronto to reverse the decision on specialty schools applications and “oust” the TDSB director of education.

The solutions may be imperfect. But, again, imagine oversight in our health system that acknowledged marginalized individuals and their right to care: our elders, our disabled, our newcomers, and our poor.

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Some of the work of trustees is more mundane. It often involves liaising with the public about school maintenance, vandalism, split classes, portables, local construction, and, yes, dog poo.

They also help with navigating the complexities of the system. French immersion. Special education. Gifted designations. Suspensions. Graduations.

There’s a lot of time spent on preventing problems through attention to safety and flow. When Sir Sanford Fleming Academy, a high school, was shut down and turned into Baycrest, an elementary school, Shelley Laskin, trustee for Eglinton-Lawrence and Toronto-St. Paul’s, spotted some issues. The city bus stop right in front of the school, for instance, which had been great for high school students, would now be smack in the middle of the kindergarten drop-off area. The bus stop had to be removed, a new time-limited stopping zone created, and new signage drawn up.

Laskin worked with the principal, the school council and board staff to come up with a list of everything that had to be considered. “What’s the change in the pattern of kids walking to school now? Where will the new playground areas be? Which door is going to be open? Where will the kids line up?” Laskin has been a trustee for five terms (she is seeking a sixth) and, like many trustees, she brings experience. “It’s not my first rodeo,” she says.

Alas, that kind of hand-holding and attention to detail would go a long way in the health sector, too. Think home care, cancer screening, hospital parking fees, access to a family physician.

Sure, there can be tensions, says Moise—for instance, between “old” Toronto, as he calls it, which historically has had a higher number of specialty and alternative schools and facilities, and areas like Scarborough and Etobicoke. (They amalgamated after the passing of the Fewer School Boards Act in 1997.)

One of those tensions was around the location of the new Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement, which formally opened in June this year. The centre’s goal is to improve Black experiences and outcomes within the school system by providing supports for both educators and students—mentoring and networking, help with navigating the complaints process, research on anti-Black racism and annual accountability reports, among other things. Moise, who is co-chair of the TDSB’s Black student achievement community advisory committee, felt the centre should be as accessible as possible—that is, centrally located and on a subway line. But it ended up at Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute in Scarborough. “We make concessions,” says Moise.

For all their powers and duties, trustees are not nearly as mighty as they once were before the infamous gutting of the school boards by the Mike Harris government. Before that, school boards could impose taxes and help negotiate teacher contracts. The job of trustee was a real job—it paid upward of $60,000 a year and came with benefits, expenses, a pension, an office, and staff. These days, it’s considered more of a side gig, almost a volunteer position, and trustees get an “honorarium” that ranges from $6,000 to about $26,000, depending on the number of students enrolled in their jurisdiction.

The low pay is a big problem, says Debbie King, who is running for trustee in Parkdale-High Park. In order to dedicate the time needed for this role, she says, trustees have to take a pay cut or get accommodations in their professional life. But not everybody can do that. “It raises the question of equity, and who is even able to consider this role,” she says.

She thinks the low pay might exclude valuable candidates. “What you end up with, potentially, is a board that just doesn’t reflect the values and the views and the perspectives that we see across the city.”

It also might worsen the problem of people using the position as a stepping stone to something more lucrative and powerful. The list of those who launched here is long: from councillors like Paula Fletcher and Frances Nunziata, to MPPs like Marit Stiles and Michael Ford, all the way up to former premier Kathleen Wynne.

“Some people think of it as an entry-level position,” says Laskin. You get used to working with a governing body, you learn about bylaws, you get experience working with people, you learn how you have to speak with those who don’t always agree with you in order to build support for things you want to accomplish. Laskin says she doesn’t begrudge anyone who wants to move on, “as long as when they’re in the trustee role, they do the job they’re elected to do.”

But Dandy feels that the intention to climb too often invites candidates that aren’t committed to understanding the issues. She thinks that trustees should have to serve a minimum of two terms.

Not paying a real salary might also worsen voter apathy. If it’s not well-remunerated, voters might wonder, can it really be all that important?

Our municipal elections have notoriously low turnout—just 40.9 percent in 2018. “Part of what makes politicians more effective is more accountability,” says Kidder. “But what creates more accountability is more of us voting.”

Too many people think that education is only a concern for parents. But it’s bigger than that. “If we do a good job with our kids,” says Laskin, “if we grow them to be empathetic, inclusionary… they learn how to work with each other, to collaborate with each other, to define success, to be creative, to take risks. You’re growing citizens. You’re growing productive members of the civil society.”

Surely that’s worth your attention. Surely, however imperfect the trustee system is, it’s worth your considered vote.