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How Much Power Does a School Trustee Have? A Tyee Election Explainer

School boards set policies, create budgets, hire superintendents. But the education minister can also fire them.

Katie Hyslop 22 Sep 2022TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

When British Columbians head to the polls next month to cast their ballots in one of 161 municipal or regional district races, they will also be tasked with choosing members for one of the province’s 60 public school districts.

Yet despite being on the same ballot as municipal councillors, there are usually fewer votes cast for school trustees who collectively make up a school board, says Jason Ellis, associate professor of educational studies at the University of British Columbia, who specializes in B.C. education history. This phenomenon is known as “undervoting” and there are a few reasons for it, Ellis says.

Not everyone has kids in a public school, for example, which alienates them from the public institution. Another reason is confusion over what it is that a school trustee or school board actually does.

School boards are as old as public schools in B.C., Ellis says, yet their responsibilities and powers have evolved.

“I don't know how a hospital board operates,” he says by way of example. “Even though I have an interest in the hospital, I don't go there every day. So that's another reason, I think, is they're somewhat removed from the lives of many people.”

But school boards can have a big impact on our lives, regardless of whether you have children currently in the school system or not.

In addition to steering the education of the next generation, B.C. school boards have been leaders in supporting trans and non-binary students, welcoming children without immigration status and partnering with Indigenous communities to achieve better outcomes for Indigenous kids.

Boards have also overstepped their bounds in the past, however, like by trying to ban age-appropriate queer books and teach creationism — efforts eventually shot down by the Education Ministry or the courts.

So before you go to the polls next month — especially if you’re currently planning to skip the school trustee section of the ballot — allow us to demystify the role, and make a case for why you should do your research and vote for a full slate.

What’s a school trustee?

School trustees are the individual members of a school board, the governance body for each of the 60 public school districts in the province.

Like municipal councillors, members of the legislative assembly or members of Parliament, trustees are elected to their position. Also like municipal councillors, trustee positions are part time, with an average annual pay of $18,747 last year. Councillors made more than twice that on average as of 2019.

Once elected, trustees are, unlike municipal councillors, directors of a legislated corporation — the school board — and owe a fiduciary duty to that corporation, says Charles Ungerleider, UBC professor emeritus, former B.C. deputy minister of education and a Vancouver school trustee from 1986 to 1988.

This duty includes “loyalty to the corporation, compliance with legislation, and acting in the best interests of the board,” said Ungerleider.

So while many candidates run on slates or under municipal party banners, once elected, trustees are expected to work together to achieve the board’s goals.

In this way school boards have more in common with appointed boards of governors, like police and university boards, than they do with other politicians.

“It's the board that exercises the authority. And the way it exercises authority is at formal, public meetings by a majority vote. Perfectly legitimate to express differences of opinion, prior to or during the deliberation prior to the board's decision,” Ungerleider said.

“But once that board makes that decision, all trustees, even those that oppose the action that were in the minority, are obligated to support the decision of the board. That's back to the fiduciary responsibility duty of loyalty to the board,” he says.

While trustees have certainly taken to social media to complain about a board decision, this violates their duties to the board as a whole, says Ungerleider. This is different from city councillors, who are free to express their opposition to council decisions.

The provincial government’s Statement of Education Policy Order lays out the provincial mandate for schools, including the roles and responsibilities of a school board.

These include ensuring any child in the district who wants it has access to a quality education, setting policies that meet the community’s education goals and provincial guidelines, liaising with community organizations and social services to provide non-educational supports for kids, implementing local and provincial education programs, monitoring teacher performance, hiring and evaluating the superintendent, maintaining facilities and passing a balanced annual budget.

In addition, while voters elect the school board, the Education Ministry has the power to fire boards if they don’t play by the province’s rules. For example, by failing to pass a balanced budget, which led to the dismissal of Vancouver school boards in 1985 and 2016. (These boards were protesting the large cuts necessary for balancing their budgets.)

“The Ministry of Education is in charge of funding allocation, curriculum, things like that,” said Carolyn Broady, president of the BC School Trustees Association and a West Vancouver school trustee since 2011.

“And at the same time, we are reporting out from our district on things like Indigenous outcomes; number of English language learners we have in our system; students with diverse learning needs — helping to understand the range and breadth of students in our district, and to better support them with the programming we put in place.”

More recently, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been the provincial Health Ministry and top doctor, Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has the power to dictate prevention and safety protocols in all 60 districts, which school boards must implement.

How has the role of school trustees changed over time?

School boards previously had the power to set local residential tax rates to fund their school district. But in 1990 the province discontinued this practice and introduced block grants that set education funding based on factors like district enrollment, location, student demographics and need. School boards still have the power to raise taxes for school program funding through a referendum, but the majority of voters must approve it.” *

This levelled the education funding playing field for poorer districts that couldn’t collect as much property tax revenue as, say, the West Vancouver district could. But it also significantly curbed school boards’ fundraising power.

Since 1990 districts have made do with money allocated by the government and whatever they can raise from revenue sources like international students’ tuition, or leasing or selling district property. Or, they’ve cut their budgets.

“So in that sense, they've lost some power to the province. In other areas, they've gained it,” said Ellis.

One of those gains is in hiring the district superintendent, the board’s only direct employee, a power granted to all school boards by the province in 1980. Only the board can hire and fire the superintendent, whose main role is to help the board achieve its goals for the district.

For example, say the school board wanted more French immersion seats in their district. They would ask the superintendent to research how they could do that, as well as the pros and cons for each option, says Jordan Tinney, the recently retired superintendent of the Surrey School District.

The final decision on whether to move forward is up to the board, not the superintendent.

Yet the superintendent also has to report to the Education Ministry at times, which adds some complications to the role and a cap on school board powers.

“It's really clear the board is your boss, but the ministry sometimes wants to give you, I'll call it, strong advice and direction, as well. And you always have to balance those,” said Tinney.

The ministry also has the power to tell the school board “no” when it oversteps its bounds, like then-education minister Arthur Charbonneau told the Abbotsford School District in the 1990s after it tried to introduce creationism lessons in schools, violating the secular principles of the School Act.

And if the ministry won’t tell them no, the provincial and federal courts will, like when the Surrey school board lost a Supreme Court of Canada case in 2002 after banning age-appropriate children’s books featuring same-sex parents from classrooms.

These are just some of the safeguards that would put a kink in the plans of any trustees or boards who would seek to ban SOGI 123 resources from schools — ministry-approved teaching resources about sexual orientation and gender identity — which some trustee candidates campaign on.

The same goes for trying to keep trans kids off of school sports teams, as some American school boards are doing — an act that would likely violate B.C.’s Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, not to mention ministry policy, says Ellis.

“Candidates for school trustee often promise big changes in education without realizing that they have little authority over schools,” he said. “They are compliance officers, not corporate executives.”

However, boards do have the power to cut funding for any district expenses not related to the core curriculum or teachers’ salaries. Like when the Vancouver district cut its anti-homophobia and diversity consultant’s hours or eliminated its anti-racism teacher mentor (a position that has since been reinstated).

What role do trustees/boards play in our democracy?

In addition to the duties and responsibilities outlined above, school boards are the community advocates for their district to the Education Ministry. They contact the minister to request more capital funding for renovations, seismic upgrades and new schools; to seek more support for students with disabilities, Indigenous students, and students learning English; or to fund more teacher positions.

“We are the conduit, really, between your school district and community and the Education Ministry,” Broady said.

But boards are also the point of accountability to the public — parents, teachers, students, voters — over what happens in school districts. Even if the issue is something beyond the district’s control, like wanting provincial funding for a new school.

People can bring their issues directly to the board during monthly board meetings. However some districts, like Vancouver, have set up restrictions around when and how the public can address the board, like having special board meeting for delegations versus hearing from the public at regular board meetings.

“One of the things that is really critically important is for trustees to model that really, trustees and school boards are part of the community and to have a more open-door process. One that supports people to engage with them,” said Sadie Kuehn, who also served as a trustee on the Vancouver School Board from 1986 to 1988.

If voters can’t get satisfaction at a school board meeting, they can bring up their issues at the ballot box every four years by voting trustees out.

Who would make a good trustee?

Putting partisan political positions aside, what should a potential voter look for in a trustee candidate to know they could achieve what they’re promising for the school district?

Cherie Payne, who sat on the Vancouver School Board from 2011 to 2014, recommends looking for candidates who outline goals and their plan to achieve them.

“A term is only four years, there are a lot of stakeholders to work with to get things done. And so you want candidates who know already going in what they're hoping to achieve,” she said.

“There will be individuals who are interested in politics for themselves. And there are people who are interested in office because there's something concrete they want to achieve, and there is a difference. And you can usually tell by listening to them when they speak.”

Kuehn advises electing as diverse a group of trustees as possible, to ensure school boards as diverse as the schools themselves. But don’t get too caught up on trustee candidates’ professional titles outside of the board, she said.

“Choose people that believe in the basic principles of fairness and justice and education, and candidates who are knowledgeable and varied in the knowledge they have,” Kuehn said, whether they’re doctors, educators, stay-at-home parents or retirees.

Tinney suggests seeking candidates who understand they will be representing the entire school district, not just one school or one particular group of students, if they are elected to the board.

“We often see trustees as advocates for special needs or trustees as advocates for Indigenous learners. That's all good. It's when you go to make the decision, what I say is you need to be willing as a trustee to potentially trim money on a gifted education to put it to Indigenous programs. And you need to be able to justify that,” he said.

“You want someone who's fair, someone who's transparent, someone who's going to be level-headed.”

Why should you vote for school trustees?

Perhaps your kids don’t attend a public school. Or you never had and never plan to have a kid. Why should you care about the school board?

Knowing where and how your tax dollars are being spent is one reason. Education is a major budget line in B.C., with $7.4 billion going into kindergarten to Grade 12 education this year, mostly into public schools.

If you plan to stay in your community for the long haul, the kids in school today may be your future employees, bosses, co-workers, customers, or even service providers like doctors, hairdressers, lawyers or teachers. Ensuring they have a strong education base will help them help you.

Schools aren’t just for students, either. At night, on weekends and during holidays, schools provide community support, too, like publicly accessible playgrounds and sports fields, and hosting child-care centres, continuing education classes, free breakfast programs, community meetings and cultural events.

Whether the neighbourhood school providing these services is seismically safe, up-to-date and isn’t leased out or sold to save money is under school board control. And voters have control over who gets on the school board.

“Having a strong school system just contributes to the thriving of local neighbourhoods. Everyone in the neighbourhood benefits from having families that are well-supported,” said former trustee Payne.

School boards also set the tone for education in the communities. If trustees are outspoken with views that marginalize community members, like homophobia, transphobia or racism, people with similar views are emboldened to go public with similar views.

More broadly, a shared education is what unites us and serves as the basis for our society, says Ungerleider.

“It is the single most important institution that we have, and more important even today than it was in the past. Because in the past there was a lot more shared responsibility with other religious institutions,” he said.

“So the kind of the centrifugal force of social media, individual difference, all the rest of that that spins us apart, makes schooling much more important now.”

* Story updated on Sept. 22 at 10:34 a.m. to include information about how school boards have the option to raise taxes for program funding if they hold a referendum.  [Tyee]

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