By Joel Ceausu
“Why should an English education cost more?” asked Steve Bletas at a press conference to officially announce his candidacy for chair of Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board last Wednesday.
A smattering of more than 40 supporters, candidates, incumbents and stakeholders filled the AGAPE parking lot to hear Bletas outline his Students First program and introduce four of his running mates.
“Our taxation rate is 34 cents while the (French) Laval school board is 24 cents; that means English education costs more,” he told the group. “It’s unacceptable” he insisted. “We have to be aggressive and pursue this with government to try and convince them to establish equal taxation: It will be difficult but we have to do it” You have two neighbors where one pays a certain amount and the other pays hundreds more because they have children in the English boards. Is that fair?”
Bletas, who presented his first running mates Tracy Friedman, Mike Pizzola, Ailsa Pelhi and Nicolas Banco, said the reformed school board election scheme (from 19 commissioners to nine with a universally elected chair) “is a positive step in the evolution of school board governance” and told Laval’s English-speaking electors “the importance of your vote has never been greater.”
He promised a culture of transparency and communication, “really listening to our stakeholders and real consultations, including town hall meetings, roundtables and every single commissioner attends every governing board meeting in their territory.”
Freidman lamented the “current, thorough lack of transparency, and we are really keen on changing that as we move forward. We won’t require parents and stakeholders to submit questions 48 hours in advance,” she said, referring to her own experience of having to submit such a query regarding high school mergers, and not getting a satisfactory response. “As a board we should have the answers and if we don’t, then the confidence to say we don’t and to communicate openly and swiftly with staff, parents, teachers and students. That’s what we are going to do.”
Bletas responded to criticism of his perceived heavy-handedness in dealing with administrators or staff. “If something needs to be done, I’m not about handing it off to bureaucrats down the line. I was very aggressive,” he said, “but after two years in the bleachers I’ve picked up on a few things…If something’s brought to my attention, I will listen and bring it forward to administration, but problems don’t just disappear by doing that, they must be resolved.”
“Steve stepped down as chair but never stepped back,” said Friedman, about Bletas who was chair for the board’s first 14 years until stepping down two years ago. “He stayed on as commissioner. He didn’t go away.” It’s ironic, says Pelhi, “but the same people who criticized him for pushing too hard back then, now wish his approach was back, because that’s what we need.”
Bletas said pride in the board has disappeared, especially as he watched student concerns largely dismissed during the merger process. “Students were adamant in their positions and the administration told them ‘We know better, we’re going ahead,’ instead of taking an extra year for transition.” Outgoing commissioner Mario Di Domenico agreed: “This board has turned inward. We have to bring stakeholders back into the debate. It has become a top-down entity with a ‘let them eat cake’ attitude. That has to change.”
Bletas insisted that there “is no war going on at council” but that it’s time for a culture shift, one he hopes will come his way Nov. 2.
As of press time, the only candidates registered with Quebec’s director-general of elections as candidates for the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board are:
- Steve Bletas
- Tracy Friedman
- Ailsa Pelhi