Viewpoints: Why vote? Because it matters

September 12, 2017
Heather Welwood, Former ASBA President

Teachers become teachers because they care about students. The time to elect school board trustees who also want to make a difference for those students is now. The Alberta government delegates to school boards of trustees the responsibility for conducting the affairs of school divisions. Local trustees make sure the community has a direct way to express its views on vital education decisions, which provide opportunities for our students and affect our day-to-day lives, and Albertans get to choose who these people will be.

We can “put the public back in public education.” Please approach this election not just as voting for a given candidate, but also as a vote for the future of democratically elected public school boards. Educators are the eyes, ears and boots on the ground. If education systems, which include educators and parents, don’t take an interest in electing trustees, what message does that send to the rest of the population? Encourage school board trustee candidates, initiate discussions and vote. On Sept. 18 nomination papers will be filed by trustee candidates for school boards, and on Oct. 16 municipal elections, which include school boards, will be held.

What makes a good trustee, and hence a good school board and employer?

Many articles are available about what makes a successful board and board governance, but corporate boards are chosen, so the board members’ hard skills and talents can be targeted. An elected board is dependent on elected people being willing to learn and complement each other, so let’s make sure we get it right at election time. School boards should reflect all walks of life, ages and opinions because that reflects society.

After years of working with successful trustees, I believe the most promising trustee candidates are courageous, patient, respectful, flexible, open-minded, prepared and upfront. A candidate doesn’t need an education background but must have an interest in public education.

Above all, the finest trustees show passion. They believe in the power of education and serve the electorate and school board because of their passion, not because it’s just something to do in retirement or to supplement their income, or because it’s the first stepping stone in a political career.

Look for those people who will take the time to learn about funding rules and regulations yet have the courage to advocate for public education for all children. Support candidates who respect others’ viewpoints, take the time to prepare and ask questions, and are willing to work as team members for the whole school district.

“But school boards don’t get to directly tax anymore, so what do they do?”

School boards were traditionally formed many years ago by community leaders (1881 in Edmonton) who wished to provide free school and opportunities for the local children, so they collected money, built schoolhouses, hired teachers and outlined the teachers’ duties. Many argue that Alberta school boards have no power without taxing authority, but how the money comes to boards is just funding; what a board does is governing.

The School Act (soon to be Education Act) sets out the duties of a board and trustees, and these are translated into local policies. School boards are tasked with strategic planning, financial oversight, demonstrating leadership, generating community engagement and connections, prioritizing school programs, school enrolment and closure, setting the calendar, advocating to other decision makers and stakeholders and, most importantly, ensuring Alberta students have opportunities to succeed. The Alberta School Boards Association (www.asba.ab.ca) has even more information on school board duties. The administrative manual or handbook of your local board is the day-to-day interpretation of government and local policies. These affect your work with students!

Does anyone even listen?

Yes. As a former trustee, I can resoundingly say that your community leadership, your input and your votes do make a difference. Vote this year, continue to engage with your school board throughout its four-year term, and encourage your community to do the same. We need all walks, all ages, all backgrounds, all viewpoints working together for a positive public education system for our children, governed by elected trustees.

Check your local city or school division website for polling stations and times to vote on Oct 16. Pass it on and vote! ❚

Heather Welwood is a former school board trustee with the Northern Lights School Division and served as president of the Alberta School Boards Association from 2007–10.

This opinion column represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.