Parents demand byelection to replace school board trustees in Edmonton, Calgary

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Parents demand byelection to replace school board trustees in Edmonton and Calgary
WATCH: An Alberta parent group is calling on two of the province’s biggest school boards to hold byelections to replace trustees who have stepped down. As Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports, parents and a political observer are raising concerns about what they are calling a lack of transparency and accountability – Feb 25, 2023

An Alberta parents’ group is calling on two of the province’s biggest school boards to hold byelections to replace trustees who have stepped down, saying they don’t feel they are being heard.

In September, Pamela Rath — the (now former) trustee for Ward 4 and 7 in Calgary — was censured after being found to be in violation of the board’s code of conduct.

She was removed from the Alberta School Boards Association and St. Mary’s University community advocacy council, however, no public documents regarding her alleged misconduct outline any of the allegations of the board’s deliberations other than the formal censuring.

In mid-December, Rath resigned her position with the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) Board of Trustees, citing “personal and family matters.”

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Board chair Cathie Williams said in January that  trustees voted to not have byelection and to continue as a six-person board until the scheduled municipal election in 2025.

In a statement to Global News, Williams said the CCSD board held a special virtual meeting in January with principals and school council chairs from Ward 4 and 7 to collect feedback and discuss the vacant trustee position. Research done by the board and senior administration found that it would take four to six months to organize the by election, and cost $500,000.

“Our board has acted successfully as a six-member board in the past, and we will do so again,” she said. “Our current trustees have the capacity and willingness to each take on a few additional schools to cover all (Ward) 4 and 7 schools. This will save our board hundreds of thousands of dollars, which we believe is better spent in our classrooms.”

A similar issue arose in Edmonton where the Catholic School Board has also refused to hold a byelection to replace a trustee who stepped down.

Voters in Edmonton won’t have a representative on the board of Edmonton Catholic Schools until 2025. Carla Smiley resigned from the position in October of 2021.

The Alberta Parents’ Union says waiting until the next municipal election in 2025 is too long.

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“Parents are saying they are having a hard time making their voices heard in the best of circumstances,” said APU executive director Jeff Park.

“They need to be providing that representation for parents, for taxpayers to make sure that we have someone that can be accountable to us.”

A statement to Global News from Calgary Catholic School District said the censure of Pamela Rath is a confidential matter.

“She was penalized and we were never told why. She’s still not allowed to say why and they’re not going to have a byelection and be answerable in anyway for that decision. It really makes a lot of parents sit back and go, ‘Who is really running our school board after all?'” Park said.

“Now we have no transparency or accountability, and possibly not even democratic representation, so it is a legitimate concern,” said Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams.

“It raises serious questions about democratic transparency and accountability. You can’t hold someone accountable if you don’t have information and now because the trustee has resigned, there’s a question of democratic representation.”

Click to play video: 'Edmonton’s 2021 school trustee results, increased interest in position'
Edmonton’s 2021 school trustee results, increased interest in position

Williams said democracy isn’t cheap and that the board should be able to provide some explanation without disclosing personal information.

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“Failure to respond just leads to tons of speculation and loss of confidence and trust. Say what you can about the nature of the issue and protect the identity of anyone else who involved,” she said.

“We are talking about almost three years — that, I think, is a significant gap. I think it’s decidedly worth the money, even if it is expensive.”

The Alberta Parents’ Union has started a petition demanding school boards to hold byelections and if they refuse, the group is calling on Alberta’s Education Minister to amend the Education Act to require them to do so.

Alberta’s education minister Adriana LaGrange also declined an interview. Instead, Global News received a statement regarding Section 81 of the Education Act, which says when a board of six or more trustees has a vacancy during the three-year period immediately following a general election, a by-election does not need to be held if there is only one vacancy.

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