A race without an audience

School board elections don’t interest Calgarians. They should

It’s a publicly funded billion-dollar corporation with a staff of 13000 and over 100000 direct daily customers but most citizens treat voting for its seven board members as an afterthought.

Candidates vying for a trustee seat on the Calgary Board of Education agree it’s a tough job to campaign for because the race doesn’t garner the same public interest that other elected officials get.

Laura Gallant-McNeil is a Calgary parent of four and a former teacher. With children in kindergarten junior high and high school she takes education issues seriously but admits she doesn’t know who the trustees are in her ward — for the public board or even the Catholic school system all her children attend.

She says voting for them is never a priority because until she receives her ballot she rarely even recognizes the names of any school board candidates.

“You see all of these names and you don’t know any of them so it’s really unless you’re involved with the school or the school board — it’s kind of tough” she says. She adds that in this campaign and in 2010 aldermanic candidates knocked on her door but she has never seen a school board candidate on her doorstep.

Wards 11 and 13 incumbent Sheila Taylor agrees voters don’t know enough about their school representatives.

“Sometimes when I knock on doors I hear people that will say ‘oh I didn’t realize that I had voted for the school board. What is a trustee?’ It’s pretty common” Taylor says.

“In most cases they will say I’ve never had a trustee at my door” adds Wards 8 and 9 candidate Judy Hehr.

School board elections are notoriously sleepy but that doesn’t mean there are no issues especially this year. Taylor says 2013 has been unusually heated.

“Across the city we’re seeing extremely competitive campaigns being run almost everywhere and much higher budget campaigns…. Almost getting to that level of aldermanic or council type for the school board. So that’s much different” she says.

Trustee hopefuls have been door-knocking for votes another rarity. Taylor says public concerns with the Calgary Board of Education are fairly consistent: people are unhappy with the recently revamped (and scandalously ambiguous) report cards bloated high-school class sizes and secretive spending practices.

Though Taylor ran against eight other candidates in 2010 and has only one challenger this time she says that in comparison the public in 2010 “had no issues.”

While the provincial government sets the curriculum and sends the money school board trustees are charged with deciding how the money will be spent setting policy outlining the results it expects from students and staff and making sure schools are functioning.

So earlier this year when the provincial government cut the CBE’s budget by two per cent it was trustees who okayed the plan to take most of that cut out of high schools consequently inflicting an 11 per cent drop in the high-school budget and a huge increase in high-school class sizes this fall.

“Now we’re really starting to see the fallout from that [decision] and parents going ‘is my child getting a good education with so many students in their class?’” says Taylor who adds she opposed directing so much of the cut at high schools.

A letter from Alberta Teachers’ Association president Frank Bruseker to Education Minister Jeff Johnson warned the government that Calgary high-school classes now have as many as 50 students in them.

Questions about spending and board transparency — especially when it comes to spending decisions — are also prominent during this campaign thanks in large part to the board’s decision to approve this year’s $1.2 billion budget and provide only six line-items with no further information about how money would be allocated.

Following that and in the midst of the provincial cuts the board secretly approved a $1.5 million salary increase for non-unionized staff (equating to as much as a 22 per cent raise for some of them) and only released news of the decision months after it was made.

In the 2010-13 term spending decisions as well as many others have been made behind closed doors as the board increasingly opted to hold its meetings in camera. That lack of transparency motivated a group of parents to form the Association for Responsive Trusteeship in Calgary Schools (ARTICS) shortly after the 2010 election.

For nearly three years ARTICS has monitored the CBE and hounded it to account for time spent in camera by attending and live-tweeting board meetings blogging criticizing the board in the media and ultimately fielding two of its own candidates Larry Leach and Trina Hurdman though the group contends the two do not represent a cohesive slate.

ARTICS chair Josh Traptow says he understands trustees have a difficult time connecting with their constituents given the expansive size of their ridings but if they don’t make themselves accessible or explain their decisions then voters won’t understand why they need them at all.

“When you pass a salary increase for $1.5 million for union-exempt staff and you only release the report after it comes out and people are upset that points right there that [the decision process] has to be done differently” he says. Traptow says the CBE defends in camera meetings as legally sanctioned ways to protect people’s privacy but he doesn’t agree.

“They always point to the fact that legislation says that anything that has to do with personnel financial contracts anything like that all have to be in camera and that they do it according to legislation so perhaps if that’s the case then maybe the province needs to look at changing privacy legislation.”

ARTICS hasn’t operated flawlessly either. In February 2012 it got into a spat with CBE lawyers who accused the group of making false allegations about the CBE to the media the year before.

Ward 6 and 7 candidate Hurdman an avid member of ARTICS then got in trouble when the media learned of an email she sent to opponent Misty Hamel on nomination day September 23 asking her to drop out of the race. Hamel refused.

Hurdman explained the email was a poorly handled attempt to concentrate votes against incumbent George Lane and was born of political inexperience. She has since spent her time campaigning hard for a job she is passionate about.

She says that in 2010 “I was one of the CBE’s biggest cheerleaders. So I was like ‘the CBE is moving in exactly the right direction I want to see the school system moving in.’” But once she saw the CBE becoming more withdrawn she became concerned.

“What they’re doing is completely in keeping with the law… but I think that as elected officials they’re also supposed to be reporting to the public” says Hurdman. “Trustees haven’t necessarily been fulfilling their role haven’t used the power that they have so people see them as irrelevant because they’ve essentially made themselves irrelevant.”

Hurdman explains that until about a year ago ARTICS was only a watchdog group.

“The purpose of ARTICS was to advocate for more transparency and involving the public in decisions. About a year ago they realized ‘you know what? It’s not working. They’re becoming less transparent less accountable. So let’s shift our focus and focus on trying to get good people elected.’”

She says ARTICS began approaching “everyone who was interested” in becoming a trustee and inviting them to ARTICS meetings to discuss governance issues and how to run a professional political campaign.

“It was never ARTICS people giving that training because… we didn’t know how to run campaigns either. And we don’t want to be seen as the ones telling other people what to do and how to think so we would always bring outside people in” she says. Those people included retiring trustee Carol Bazinet Taylor Dale Hudjik from ARTICS’ Edmonton counterpart Alberta PCs vice-president Troy Wason Alberta Party organizer Ken McNeill and Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“This election a lot of people have really raised the bar just to run for trustee” says Hurdman. “Before you would never hear of trustees and now trustees are out there door-knocking. You never used to see trustee signs on private lawns now they’re everywhere.”

She says that the challenges of running “professional” campaigns comparable to city council races has been surprising and that the specifics of a trustee race make it even harder.

“We have very very large areas — even the MPs don’t have as large an area as we do — and the smallest budgets of any politician just because people don’t normally donate to trustee campaigns…. My trustee campaign is basically funded by my in-laws” she says.

Outgoing CBE chair Pat Cochrane says she finds the competitiveness of this year’s race intriguing but isn’t sure what candidates complaints about the CBE are founded on.

“We have as many [closed door meetings] as we need” she says. The same goes for concerns with how little constituents see of their trustees.

“I’m not even sure what that issue is that people are raising because I’m out in the community all the time.” She admits even if a trustee is active in the community it’s still physically difficult to see everyone.

“I have double the geographical area and constituents that an alderman would serve…. Wards 8 and 9 are about 144000 people.”

Cochrane is retiring after 14 years as a trustee. She says that since 2010 the board has had some problems because “not all of the members of the board were as committed to governance and the structure that we had. I think we had people who were more committed to wanting to be right rather than to actually make a group decision.”

However she believes Calgary’s public school system is excellent and newbie candidates shouldn’t denigrate that before they see the system “from the inside.”

“It’s interesting with hearing some of the people who are running because they are [saying] ‘I’m going to fix this and this and this’” she says warning there will “absolutely” be a learning curve for new trustees.

“You come in and you think you know a lot and then it’s like ‘oh my gosh.’ It’s a $1.2 billion corporation. We’ve got 110000 kids. We’ve got 13000 employees. There are many things you have to learn before you start making decisions.”

There are seven public school board trustee seats each covering two city Wards. Twenty-five candidates are vying for a spot with an average of three candidates per seat and a six-way race in Wards 12 and 14. Pat Cochrane and Carole Bazinet are not seeking re-election.