School board elections present hope for progress in 2014

By Joel Ceausu and Robert Frank

Quebec will at last hold much-postponed school board elections, Nov. 2, 2014. The last time we went to the polls to vote for school board commissioners was in 2007. That four-year mandate was supposed to end in 2011. Instead, former Liberal Education Minister Michelle Courchesne introduced a law that let her defer school board elections indefinitely.

Elections were supposed to make school boards, which spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars each year, directly accountable to the populace. However, the abysmal voter turnout alarmed Quebec City.

Only 7.2 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in French school board elections in 2007—11 per cent fewer than the 8.1 per cent who went to the polls in 2003. In contrast, voter participation rose more than 14 per cent at English school boards to 16.7 per cent. Though more than double their French counterparts, it still meant that five out of six English voters didn’t bother. 

To try to improve voter participation, Courchesne toyed with pairing the school board ballot with municipal elections. The school boards loved the two-votes-for-the-price-of-one proposal, but the municipalities hated it, so instead of voting last November, we must cool our heels for another year.

While we wait, many school board commissioners have resigned and several have died in office. Each school board can then fill the normally elected posts with someone of their own choosing. Even with the best of intentions, that process undermines a democratic mandate that was already weak at the outset. In the meantime, the province’s Education Ministry has intruded into school board governance, almost to the point of making them irrelevant. 

The upcoming elections should be a big deal and will have major implications for school boards around the province, and by extension, schools, students and families, touching the very heart of the democratic process that we all hold dear. Hopefully more will participate.

Candidates, once elected, count on an incumbent boost at polls and rely on a solid core of support, rather than risk engaging a significant opposition by increasing their reach. Stay low, under the wire, say little, smile a lot. For many it works in what are essentially humdrum affairs, short on the shiny distractions that are lifeblood for today’s over-mediatized and disengaged voters.

It’s usually questions about governance, maybe curriculum, or depending on the board, the vision and its chronic challenges. The sad part about it is that as Anglophones face the deliberate choking off of their linguistic future, few take enough notice to actually get on a list and go vote.

If you are like most, you probably don’t even know where you can vote. That is, you must ask to be registered on the English voters’ roll if you don’t have a child in an English school.

This negative marketing scheme buttresses the francophone majority, further isolating and starving the English school system of resources and support. As long as it is not a cable company trying it!

But this year should be different. To increase democracy, turnout, to reduce expenses and make boards more efficient, the good burghers of Quebec’s education department decided, some years ago, to redraw school board maps and cut the number of school commissioners in half.

In one fell swoop former, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne’s dictum will not only carve ten territories out of a previous 23 (EMSB) but will thus boot ten commissioners from each board council, putting about 650 of them out of work across Quebec.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Bloated councils have for years been lethargic, self-serving and protected bastions of inefficiency, thanks to partisan bickering, a wholesale dearth of educational experience and the view that school commissioner posts are a springboard to higher political office.

Moreover, by staving off elections for an extra few years, we are left with commissioners who have been there for six years.

The EMSB has a commissioner who was appointed by fellow commissioners following the retirement of her predecessor, in effect delivering her a four-year mandate based on a few votes at council and not a single elector, with little if any public engagement in the process. It’s no surprise taxpayers are cynical about all of this.

For the trouble of sitting part-time on EMSB council, commissioners are paid $8,427. The chairperson receives about $25,500, plus there are bonuses for committee chairs and committee memberships—everyone is on some committee, some on several—not to mention reimbursement of expenses. Will eliminating half of the school commissioners deliver significant savings?

Probably not, as the extra work will be carved up and the global compensation envelope will surely be devoured just the same. Councillors will still want loonies tossed back to them for their chump change expense claims that include driving to board events for which they are paid. But the energy will change, that is certain. Large partisan alliances that stymie action through politicking and sheer spite will not return, although it’s hard to see how a candidate can curry favour with voters across such a vast and diverse territory without forming pacts among local candidates.

Part of the new electoral scheme is universal suffrage for the school board chair, who must now campaign across the entire board territory. That’s far more difficult than garnering a few hundred ballots in a single ward and then horse-trading to get the support of ten other councillors. In Montreal it will mean campaigning from Lachine to Rivière des Prairies. In Laval, contenders must campaign in a territory that spans 35,000 square kilometers.

No, this is work. Leadership hopefuls must simultaneously appeal to divergent constituencies, far beyond their fiefdoms where a few select streets-worth of votes can clinch them a spot on council. Communities that have painfully watched their schools disappear and those that are clamouring for more classroom space must all be addressed.

Your tax dollars are also an important issue. After The Suburban reported that property owners would be paying higher 2013 school taxes, Lester B. Pearson School board chair Suanne Stein Day told the newspaper that although the law says that school boards decide how much school tax to impose, the amounts that the boards may collect is, in fact, predetermined in Quebec City. The effect is to reduce the school boards’ tax deliberations to an exercise in arithmetic.

Keenly contested school board elections, during which a large portion of the electorate chooses from among many highly qualified candidates would be the best way to redress the alleged provincial incursion. Clearly, a strong mandate in the November 2014 ballot would offer the best means to strengthen the hand of Quebec’s school boards. Whether solid candidates will come forward and voters take the trouble to cast a ballot remains to be seen.

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