What does a School Board Trustee actually do?

I have previously written on Calgary’s mayor and councillor races, it is time to turn to the third group of elections that will be occurring on October 21. These are the races for the Calgary Public Board of Education (CBE) and the Calgary Catholic Board of Education. My focus in this blog post will be on the CBE.

There are 24 candidates running for seven CBE trustee positions. There are five incumbents (Joy Bowen-Eyre, Wards 1 and 2; Lynn Ferguson, Wards 3 and 4; Pamela King, Wards 5 and 10; George Lane, Wards 6 and 7; and Sheila Taylor, Wards 11 and 13). There are also two open seats: Wards 8 and 9, and Wards 12 and 14.

Here are a couple of the more interesting races. One is for the open seat in Wards 8 and 9 which sees a stark ideological clash between liberal Judy Hehr (former principal and Liberal MLA Kent Hehr’s mother) and conservative Steve Chapman (who has run unsuccessfully for alderman in the past). A second one is in Wards 6 and 7 where the incumbent George Lane is facing a tough challenger in Trina Hurdman. Hurdman has been a fixture at CBE meetings over the last couple of years and has been eager to challenge Lane and other incumbent trustees (with the notable exception of Sheila Taylor) for its lack of transparency. Hurdman even sent an email to Misty Hamel, the third candidate in the race, pleading with her to pull out because of fears that it could lead to a vote split and allow Lane to win again. If the email story becomes widely known in Wards 6 and 7, it might damage Hurdman’s attempt at branding herself the transparent candidate.

Story continues below advertisement

School trustee positions are seen as important because they are the local elected officials responsible for governing our children’s education system. The CBE, which is the largest in Alberta, has a budget of over a $1 billion and it is the trustees who have to approve it. Trustee is also often an entry level position for future politicians. This is especially true for women. Kim Campbell was a school trustee in Vancouver before becoming Prime Minister. Closer to home, Danielle Smith (Wildrose Leader) and Teresa Woo-Paw (PC MLA) are former CBE trustees.

A key point in this election is for all candidates to clearly explain what a trustee actually does. Many of their powers have been stripped away by either the provincial government or the chief CBE superintendent. At the provincial level, you have the situation in 1999 when Learning Minister Lyle Oberg fired the entire CBE board for becoming dysfunctional. In addition, the CBE makes recommendations on school closures and locations for new schools, but it is ultimately the Alberta government which makes the final decisions, often bypassing the recommendations of the CBE. Meanwhile, it is the chief superintendent and her staff who administer the system. They, not the trustees, make personnel decisions and establish policy. A good example involved the CBE budget. The chief superintendent prepared the budget and submitted it to the trustees for approval. Amazingly, the trustees approved a $1.2 billion budget that had only five line items and without much of a debate. Is this because the trustees are just a rubber stamp for administration, or the trustees have delegated this power to the superintendents, or because the chief superintendent is deliberately keeping the trustees in the dark on budget matters?

Story continues below advertisement

Voters need to be told what powers a trustee really has and what powers they do not. Only in this way can voters make an educated choice in school board elections.

Editor’s note: Article updated to correct the following: Wards 3 and 4 is not an open seat. Lynn Ferguson is the incumbent Trustee. 

Sponsored content