Campaign on for new trustee

Prepare to head back to the polls, residents of Don Valley East and Scarborough-Agincourt.

A Feb. 27 byelection has been set to replace two former Toronto District School board trustees, after Michael Coteau (Don Valley East) and Soo Wong (Scarborough-Agincourt) were elected to Queen’s Park during October’s provincial election.

With 17 candidates running for the position in Don Valley East’s Ward 17, and 14 in Scarborough-Agincourt’s Ward 20, the race is on.

To make an informed decision come Election Day, it may help to know just what the heck a trustee gets paid to do, and how it affects the community at-large.

School trustees essentially have two jobs, says Annie Kidder, director of People for Education, a Toronto-based advocacy organization.

“On the one hand, they’re the local constituent representative,” says Kidder. “And on the other hand, they’re a voice for the educational vision for the board.”

Within those realms, trustees have a vast array of responsibilities, which includes setting the education policy at the board and influencing policy at the provincial level. Locally, trustees are essentially neighbourhood advocates responsible for overseeing school facilities, which as Kidder points out, could be determining whether to open or close a school, and reaching out and responding to constituent queries. Trustees must also sit on a variety of standing committees.

Trustees are also the keepers of the board purse — they set an annual budget (with your tax dollars) and are responsible for allocating resources.

The board’s 2011–2012 operating budget is $2.8 billion.

Kidder says there are several things constituents should take into consideration before marking their ballot.

As with any local official, trustees should be accessible to their constituents.

Voters may want to inquire about how much time the candidate will devote to the job if elected. Since it is not considered a full-time job, it’s not unusual for trustees to have another job, Kidder says. She suggests asking a candidate how they would coordinate any outside employment with their trustee responsibilities.

Knowledge of local schools and experience in the community is also critical for a school board representative, says Councillor James Pasternak, who represented York Centre as a trustee before being elected to council in 2010.

“You look at experience, someone who has been on the parent council, he said.

A trustee should be a strong advocate for the schools, Pasternak says.

“Make sure they can keep their distance from the unions so they can speak for parents and have an independent voice.”

Pasternak says voters should also carefully consider a candidate’s views on special education.

“Special education is becoming one of the number 1 issues in education these days,” he said.

Though it may seem like a broad question, Kidder says it’s worth asking candidates about their overall vision of education.

“What kinds of things do you think the schools should be doing, what’s their idea of success?” she said.

“What do they think a well-educated graduate should look like or know when they graduate from high school?”

Like Pasternak, many elected officials got their political start as a school trustee. Former trustees include MPP Kathleen Wynne (who is also a former minister of education), and councillors Shelley Carroll, Josh Matlow and Maria Augimeri.