School board governance matters

By Stephen Mitchell
Special to The Suburban

“What does a school board commissioner do anyway?”

“It’s a bunch of rubber stamping”

“Decisions are made behind the scenes; why bother?”

“What a waste of taxpayer dollars. Get rid of commissioners.”

“Just put the money directly in the schools and get rid of this waste.”

You can read and/or hear all of this on any given day in the media, in the local eatery or by the playground as parents wait for their children to emerge from their day at school.

Almost seven years ago, I was elected to a four-year term as a School Board Commissioner in the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board. Welcome to politics in school boards—where even the basic math doesn’t always quite add up.

As the time nears for me to make my decision to run again for election as a commissioner again or not, I ask myself, “Does this really matter? Can I make a difference? Is it worth it?”

School board commissioners are tasked with overseeing perhaps the most important investment a society can make: the education of its people.

To accomplish this, commissioners in Quebec are entrusted with the oversight of the spending of 8.5 billion tax dollars every year. We are to ensure the effective use of human, financial and material resources in our school board. We are to represent the taxpayers of our electoral divisions and we are to ensure that the relevance and quality of education offered meets the expectations of our electorate. 

School boards hire directors, administrators, specialists in education, in finance, in human resources, technology and in buildings and maintenance. These are professional, very competent people, with years of education and experience. They are hired to do their job and they do it well. And they are accountable to their publicly elected commissioners.

I don’t think anyone will disagree that education is extraordinarily important, or that the spending of 8.5 billion tax dollars annually is something that requires accountability. It requires oversight. Public oversight, with elected representatives accountable to their electorate. Or perhaps representatives appointed by…whom, exactly?

Is this really something we want to leave to provincial patronage appointments? And by the way, a commissioner’s effective pay works out to be at best $5/hour. Most weeks it works out to below $2/hour. It is a tiny price to pay for such an important trust.

When it comes to something so fundamentally important to society as a whole; something wholly paid for by public dollars, we need real accountability and the only way we can get that is via school board elections.

Commissioners are basically a publicly elected board of directors; in place to offer experience, perspective, guidance, support and judgment.Commissioners are in fact accountable—your vote puts them there. And your vote can take them out.

Decisions are not made lightly. There is no rubber-stamping. Public debate at council meetings may leave many of us wanting, but decisions are in fact come to through consultation, through hours and hours of painstaking analysis, presentations with questions and answers in committees and in public council meetings. All votes are taken in public—check the minutes of meetings to see how your commissioner is representing you.

Elections will be held on Nov. 2, 2014. If you don’t like how your commissioner is representing you, then get out and vote. If you are happy with your commissioner, then you still need to get out and vote to make sure they are reelected.

Governance matters. Your vote puts this governance in place around the table.We can all be replaced. It’s up to you.

Steve Mitchell is commissioner, Ward 7, Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board and vice-chairman, Executive Committee.
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