Traditionally, races for school board trustee aren’t as high profile as those for mayor and council, but advocates say they’re still vital — now more than ever.
Together, the Edmonton Catholic and Edmonton Public school boards are the voice for more than 150,000 children and their families.
“The education that our children get moves them on to future citizens. We want to have them empowered, impactful and knowledgeable, well-educated and well-rounded and trustees definitely have a huge impact,” explained Kara Pelech.
Pelech is the only candidate challenging an incumbent to be on the Edmonton Catholic School Board. The other trustees have already been acclaimed, in six of the seven wards, because nobody else put their name forward.
“I think it’s important that voters have a choice,” Pelech said.
“Having two names or three names or four names on a ballot gives the electorate a choice on who they want to have represent them. I don’t think this has ever happened.”
Debbie Engel is one of those acclaimed trustees. She’s entering her eighth term in the position, having won her first election back in 1998, 23 years ago.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, referencing the lack of challengers.
“I think the biggest thing this is attributed to is that this board has worked so well together.”
Engel said the outgoing board did a lot of community outreach on issues like COVID-19 restrictions.
“I think the number one thing we are facing is the challenges that COVID has presented. School boards have been left to a lot of decision making,” she explained.
She said that’s just one reason why voters should pay attention to the school board races.
“Trustees make very important decisions for our children and they can be put in a very powerful position.”
Engel said over the course of the pandemic, the Catholic School Board followed the science and advice of experts when it came to the pandemic and was very responsive to concerns.
“You are totally accountable to the community. You return calls within the day or within the hour if possible, you return emails immediately, you follow up,” Engel said.
But the fact that there’s only one race, with one person challenging an incumbent, isn’t great for democracy, says Wing Li, with the Support our Students organization.
“Maybe there wasn’t enough outreach being done.
“Maybe there wasn’t even enough awareness of what it means to be a trustee and why it’s important getting more people involved, removing the barriers that candidates face.”
Li also hopes voters will give consideration to what trustee they vote for.
“It’s a critical role and it is elected. Because of that transparency that’s needed and the representation, I think a lot of parents now will be engaging in because we’re at an important point in education, considering the crisis that we’ve been facing in the past year and a half.”
In contrast, Support our Students is happy to see so many candidates running for the Edmonton Public School Board, where 40 candidates have put their names forward.
“We like to see lots of diverse voices coming to the table and having different ideas being put out there so that we can see change, positive change,” Li said.
Trisha Estabrooks, running for trustee in Ward D, agrees.
“There is a recognition, I think, amongst Edmontonians, that the role of a school board trustee is actually really important.”
She feels in the last term, school board were thrust into the spotlight after having to make big decisions that impact every child’s day-to-day education.
Estabrooks says she’s noticed a big change compared to last election when it comes to awareness of what a trustee is.
“So many people would say, ‘This is the first time a trustee has ever knocked on my door,’ number one. And number two was, ‘What do you do exactly?’ And I’m not getting those same sorts of questions.”
In the coming months, there are a few critical issues Li says trustees will have control of.
“Of course, most acutely is the COVID-19 process that’s still continuing in schools and has really drained a lot of the resources that were available.
“It also amplified inequities in terms of the students access and barriers for students to access schools,” she said.
“The other issue that’s really pressing in this province is the curriculum.
“So we’ve done some work in terms of advocating for this curriculum draught to not be piloted in this current form.”
Estabrooks says traditionally, school board elections have lower voter turnout than city council but she’s hopeful that will change this election.
“Do your research. Know who your candidates are. If you have questions, reach out to them. Part of the job of trustee is to be available and accessible.”