There has been an uptick in candidates running in Ontario municipal elections for school trustee positions to oversee the Catholic education system this year. Photo by Michael Swan

Out of pandemic, interest high in Catholic school trustees’ role

By 
  • September 14, 2022

With candidates in full campaign mode for upcoming municipal elections across Ontario next month, there appears to be a re-invigorated interest in Catholic school board trustee positions.

Though statistics on previous election years are not readily available, the number of candidates for this year’s trustee elections appear to be higher than the norm, says Pat Daly, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA).

The 62 incumbents (of roughly 240 sitting Catholic trustees) not running for re-election explains some of the possible uptick, Daly believes. Beyond that, there appears to be a greater awareness and interest in running for public service which can be attributed to various factors, not the least of which may be the past two years of pandemic.

“Clearly there’s an awareness, understanding and commitment both to publicly funded Catholic education as well as to public service,” said Daly. “There’s perhaps a greater awareness of that which is obviously extremely positive. I suspect that the pandemic and people’s perspective views on certain actions that were taken that perhaps encouraged some to run.”

With 29 public Catholic boards in the province, historically there have been challenges getting people to run with many positions filled by acclamation. In Toronto, the largest Catholic board, there are no acclamations this year, with 40 candidates vying for 12 available seats. In the most competitive riding, Ward 9, seven candidates are vying for one seat.

Whatever the reason for the uptick, Daly sees it is a good thing.

“The higher the level of engagement the better and the more positive,” said Daly. “With any level of provincial, national, local government or school board, the more the electorate parents are aware of the important role of Catholic school boards and awareness of those that are running, all of that is critically important.”

There has, however, been plenty of concern that the general public doesn’t have a clear sense of what the role of trustee entails. According to provincial guidelines, trustees are required to carry out their responsibilities in a manner that assists the board in fulfilling its duties under the Education Act, which governs how education is delivered to students in Ontario’s publicly funded school system. Their role is to maintain a focus on student achievement, well-being and equity and to participate in making decisions that benefit the board’s entire jurisdiction while representing the interests of their constituents.

Anthony Piscitelli, a former Catholic trustee who is a professor in the public service program at Kitchener’s Conestoga College, has done research that looks at public expectations of trustees. He published a paper in January in Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, along with Wilfrid Laurier University political science associate professor Andrea Perrella and doctoral researcher Adam Payler from the University of Birmingham in England. Their survey found people generally see trustees as representing the public, supporting administrative functions and ensuring educational outcomes are met.

However, the online survey conducted between Nov. 22 and Dec. 2, 2020, which included 2,541 Ontario residents, found almost 40 per cent (987) of respondents didn’t list any of the above roles but said trustees either have no role, they didn’t know what trustees did or gave an answer that wasn’t relevant to the question.

Catholic trustees see their role, partially, as protecting the Catholic school system from elimination. There has been debate about abolishing Catholic school boards and merging them with the non-denominational public system at least as far back as the 1990s. Such attempts have been met with resistance, with Catholics naturally more prone to defend their school boards from elimination, said the report.

In recent years, however, Quebec and Newfoundland have eliminated their denominationally based school systems demonstrating that the threat to Catholic school boards in Ontario can not be taken lightly.

Daly says the need to raise awareness has been a top priority for OCSTA.

“It’s been a priority for our association for many years to help raise the understanding about the important role and value that Catholic trustees serve in terms of publicly funded Catholic education and beyond,” said Daly. “In my own view generally, perhaps there’s not as good an understanding or appreciation for various roles in public service and the various roles in government, including trustees. I think for sure (raising awareness) continues to be a priority so that there is a good understanding of the role and the importance of the electorate parents being educated in terms of who’s running so that they’re selecting candidates that are serving the best interests of Catholic education.”

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