Democracy inaction at Waterloo Region’s school boards


I’m shocked about the extended day debate that is raging in Waterloo Region. Rather than seeing democracy in action, we’re seeing democracy inaction.

Before I go any further I will disclose that while my children could be involved, they do not require before or after school care by the school board or a community organization. Furthermore, you should know that the Waterloo Region Early Learning Coalition is a client of my business. But what follows are my own thoughts and opinions. I’m not being paid to write this post nor has its contents been approved. But as a keen observer of politics in this region, I find that I can no longer stay silent.

Some context

We have a situation in Waterloo Region where the local school boards are implementing a policy differently than every other English language school board in the province. No where else in Ontario is the child care system affected by the extended day plans of its two major school boards as it is in this area.

Yes, the province mandated that every school board provide before and after school care for 4 and 5 year olds where numbers warrant as our local boards say. But the province has not mandated that the school board must provide that care itself even where community organizations like the YWCA or the YMCA already provide. Quite the opposite! Both Dalton McGuinty and Education Minister Laurel Broten have indicated publicly they prefer a hybrid model where school boards would continue to work in cooperation with their existing partners using a hybrid model.

Parents have expressed their concerns loudly and clearly at board meetings, meetings held by the coalition and online such as a website created by a parent. What do trustees at our two main school boards think? Who knows? All we hear is silence except for one or two trustees.

A gaping democratic deficit

For the most part, my intent here is to avoid the debate over the merits of the school boards plans versus the hybrid model or other alternatives. My concern here is the gaping democratic deficit that is on display.

Shouldn’t we know what trustees think?

If the local boards are implementing the provincial mandate differently than all their counterparts, shouldn’t trustees be accountable and vote to implement this policy?

If parents pack a meeting asking for consultations so that their concerns can be heard, shouldn’t trustees have an answer?

If two trustees put a motion on the table to hold consultations, shouldn’t there at least be a vote on whether to hold them?

If the Catholic schools want to implement faith-based learning in a way that is different from how they have worked with partners previously and different than every other English Catholic school board, shouldn’t trustees have something to say about it? Shouldn’t they vote to support it?

If the major non-profit organizations delivering child care say that there are serious implications to local child care for all families seeking it in Waterloo Region, shouldn’t their concerns be considered by trustees?

Apparently, the answer to all of these questions is: No!

Trustees are elected and accountable

Trustees are elected. They are accountable to the people who elect them.

Even if they agree with the extended day policy, they should make sure the community is heard. Even if they are confident that the plans are the best for the children they serve AND the community at large, they should be prepared to vote to support it. Anything less brings into doubt the purpose of having trustees and electing them.

Expert staff play a crucial role

School board staff have been front and centre in this debate. They believe they are doing the right thing for the right reasons. Just like every other public body, staff do all the heavy lifting in making our governments work. I strongly support the role of staff to make important decisions and to oversee day to day operations. We hire these people for their expertise and rely on them to make recommendations on the best course of action. But at the end of the day, they are not accountable to the electorate.

The buck stops with trustees

We elect people to positions such as trustees so that they can make decisions on our behalf. We expect them to look after our interests and provide leaderships. We expect them to listen to us and to help make our voices heard. They may not always make the decisions preferred by the majority. They may have good reasons to support a different course of action, but people should have the opportunity to be heard and to know where their elected officials stand. If we don’t like what they decide, we can always replace them come the next election.

Trustees avoiding making a decision

But trustees are avoiding taking any responsibility for the extended day policy even as debate heats up.

Instead of voting on a motion to hold consultations, the public school trustees are considering a motion to hold information sessions for parents. The motion signed by the majority of public trustees should pass easily. But it means that instead of listening to parents, trustees want parents to listen to staff about why the public board is doing the right thing. No one will be on record as opposing consultations. No one will be on record as supporting a plan that has parents and community partners upset and could affect the majority of families with young kids in the region. Yet before the information session motion was made, consultations with parents were going to be held on recreation programs for 8 – 12 year olds. Yes, really.

Note added Dec. 7: In a letter in today’s Record, trustee Margaret Johnston clarified that there will be an opportunity for the board can hear parent’s concerns’.  That could be a step in the right direction depending upon the format AND if it is not just a chance for parents to blow off steam–there’s needs to be some openness to addressing parents concerns including parents of children three and under. I’m concerned that may not be the case since she makes the point that only 1 in 8 kids have access to licensed care and that all should. Agreed. But she infers that is only possible under the boards plan, effectively dismissing that the hybrid model being planned in Ottawa-Carleton can achieve the same goal.

Public trustees are also considering a motion to bring in a facilitator to work with its community partners on how to deliver quality care. But if there is no room to budge on their plans for an extended day, what’s the point?

I have yet to see a single Catholic trustee quoted on the decision by that board’s staff. When the Director of Education wrote that it was all or nothing, did he have their support? If he did, when did they listen to parents and other stakeholders? When did they vote on this policy?

Trustees on both boards appear content to consider this matter an operational decision that is best left to staff. Under the province’s original legislation bringing in full day kindergarten that would be true. There might even be an argument to that effect if other comparable school boards–or even better most or all of them–were making the same decision. But none are. The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board was the only other board planning the same approach but when parents expressed concerns, it held consultations and both staff and the board decided that the hybrid model was a better solution.

Put democracy into action

There’s an easy way for trustees to eliminate the democratic deficit. Hold votes on consultations. Hold votes on their staff’s recommended extended day policy.

When your school board is making a decision that is different than all others, the decision is not a staff decision. Trustees need to do the job they were elected to do. And if they believe we should go in a different direction than every other area, have the courage of your convictions and go on record as supporting an extended day run by your board in all schools.

If not, at least go on record as to why none of that will happen.

The alternative is to eliminate elected trustees.

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