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Information About the 2022 Municipal Election

Ted Martin: On Being a Trustee

Waterloo Region District School Board trustee Ted Martin gave us permission to republish the text of a speech he gave in 2014. It is a good overview of what motivated Martin to become a trustee and what the job entails.

Past Chairperson Ted Martin, panel member at December 4, 2014 Leadership Academy

I have decided to take the approach of sharing with you my personal journey as a trustee rather than simply going through the legislated responsibilities.

I became involved with school board politics in 1996-97, when my eldest daughter had just enrolled in the public education system, and parents around the province were joining together to express concerns about the educational direction being taken by the provincial government of the day, in particular Bill 160.

In Toronto, Annie Kidder and others formed People for Education. Another group developed in Ottawa, an alternate group in Toronto. In Waterloo Region, we formed a group called PACE (Parents Against Cuts to Education, though we later changed it to People Against Cuts to Education, to be more inclusive).

When the 1997 municipal elections rolled around, we put my name on the ballot for trustee and I was elected in Kitchener, finishing in third spot of about fourteen candidates, behind two incumbents.

As a new trustee, I soon discovered that most of the things I had campaigned on and most of the things I had hoped to change or challenge, were outside the realm of what Trustees could do.

And, in subsequent years, under subsequent governments, that realm has continued to shrink.

Perhaps a good place to start is with a reminder that trustees are not members of a parliament.

During my first year, I often spent much of my energy asking pointed questions to staff. After one particularly heated exchange, during which I had made our Manager of Information Technology look incompetent, someone from the audience – the head of the male elementary teachers association – took me aside and said, “those are really good questions you are asking, important questions, but you have to remember that this is not Queen’s Park, that the staff is not the government and you are not the opposition.”

I think that was an important lesson for me. Because, while we want to hold staff responsible for implementing the decisions of the Board, our ultimate goal – unlike in a parliamentary setting – is not to score political points or play to our constituents, but to create an education system that works for our students, that promotes student achievement and well-being, and to build public confidence in public education.

Trustees are members of a board, which is quite a different thing than being politicians. Many of you may have served on community boards – I’ve been on non-profit sport or church boards – and a school board should be more like them or like the Board of a corporation than like a government body.

Individual trustees have absolutely no power – but together, as a Board, we govern the school system by hiring the Director, setting the policies, and, at least theoretically, allocating the resources.

I say theoretically because the Ministry determines where most of our resources must be allocated and how much money we receive – local Boards do not have the ability to tax.

It is almost amusing when members of the public threaten us – usually during a boundary or accommodation review – that they will switch their taxes to the Catholic board if we don’t support their position: it really doesn’t matter which board you designate your taxes to, since all Boards are funded by the Ministry of Education using a formula largely based on the number of students. There are some extra grants for special needs, English as a Second Language, transportation, and so on, so the allocation isn’t exactly equal based on the number of students, but it is meant to be equitable.

Boards do make budgetary decisions about school maintenance and repairs, about the allocation of some staff (such as educational assistants), about the implementation of special / magnet programs (such as French Immersion), about the allocation of technology and so on, but usually almost the entire budget is already committed and we are dealing with minor details and, ideally, even those are largely determined by the policies we have established.

For example, we shouldn’t have to decide about individual allocations of educational assistants or French Immersion classes, since we have Policies to govern that.

Which brings us to probably the primary role of the Board of Trustees: to establish the vision and policies of the Board, and to provide oversight to ensure that they are being implemented.

It is important to differentiate between Policies – which the Board establishes – and Procedures – which Staff develops as a way to implement the Policies.

Trustees are explicitly forbidden, by provincial directive, from getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the school board.

So, last winter, when staff responded to the Labour Board’s directive about helmets being worn by staff during ice skating activities, they could look to our safety policies – for both staff and students – and implement a procedure in keeping with those policies, without consulting with trustees, although I will assure you that they kept us informed about what was happening.

Let’s look at Board Policy 2005, which is titled Parent Support.

The Policy consists of but two paragraphs: one that recognizes that parents or guardians of students may feel they need support in some cases and the other explaining that Trustees will facilitate the communication process between the parent and the appropriate staff and provide information and direction. Trustees shall direct the parent or guardian to the processes that should be followed in resolving any concerns or to the appropriate person or step in the process, but shall not act as a representative of the parent or guardian.

Administrative Procedure 1410, also titled Parent Support, is the staff procedure developed to implement Board Policy 2005. It is two pages long and goes into much more detail about the Steps in Communicating with Schools, about who and what is a Representative of a Parent, about Matters that should not be addressed at a Meeting between Staff and Parents, and so on.

Not only does this example show the difference between Policy – the high-level statement of guiding principles developed by trustees – and Procedure, which describes how the policies are to be implemented by staff, it also speaks to the role of trustee as advocate.

While trustees are to consider the needs of the local community and the opinions and positions of community members when making decisions around the Board table, trustees must ultimately make decisions that they feel are best for the entire system, which means often deciding contrary to what particular individuals may have shared.

So trustees should never resist being ombuds people, helping members of the public navigate their way through the system, as Board Policy 2005 and Administrative Procedure 1410 show, but we should never become advocates for a particular person or a particular cause.

If I ultimately arrive at a position that is contrary to their position, despite having consulted with them on the issue at hand, parents will often complain that I didn’t listen to them. I think they are confusing having their say with getting their way.

But, while a parent understandably is taking the position that he or she feels is best for his or her child, the trustee must consider all the inputs – often in diametrical opposition to one another – and make a decision that the trustee feels is best for the entire system, under whatever constraints the province and labour agreements have placed upon us.

How many people do we have here? I bet if I asked you each for your thoughts on a particularly contentious issue, perhaps bell times, I would get at least 10 different answers, and some of them would be completely opposite of each other.

Trustees need to weigh all that input, plus input from staff, from the Ministry, maybe from other School Boards, and our own knowledge and experience, and make the best decision possible.

This may not be a popular decision and we sometimes struggle with making difficult decisions, but it is the design of representative democracy that we elect people to make the best decisions on our behalf not merely to make the most convenient decisions or even the most popular decisions.

And trustees should always be careful about how strenuously or personally they hold to a particular position – and I know I’ve gone too far on some things, because, once the Board makes a decision, each trustee is required by law to uphold the decision of the Board, even if they did not support that position.

So even if I argued against a motion and voted against it, and argued vehemently and passionately against it, I am required to uphold the implementation of the resolution passed by the Board and must be able to explain the rationale for the policy, and ensure that it is understood, implemented and monitored.

The most extreme example of this for me was when I was the Chairperson of the Board, back in 2003, when we discussed and debated the closing of high schools for over a year. In the end, we voted to close a high school by a 6-5 vote and I was on the losing side. Nevertheless, I was required to go before the media – to be the spokesperson— to explain why we decided to do what we decided to do – even though I personally voted against that decision. Some neighbours left very nasty messages on my voice mail, but I was obligated to explain the corporate decision of the Board, because, as a trustee, I am merely a member of the Board and must support and adhere to the decisions of the Board.

For those of us who are driven to become trustees – it is usually because of some deeply held beliefs or things we strongly believe need changing and we are likely type A personalities –this can be extremely difficult.

I think I’ve mentioned – even if just in passing – most of the primary roles of a trustee. So, to summarize, in the order that I’ve mentioned them, rather than in any sort of priority or how they are listed in the Education Act or other government-endorsed documentation:

  • Fostering a system that promotes student achievement and well-being

  • Building public confidence in public education

  • Hiring a Director of Education and holding the director responsible for the performance of all the staff because the Director is really the only employee of the Board of Trustees

  • Setting the Vision and Policies of the Board, being able to explain the decisions of the Board, and overseeing their implementation by the staff

  • Allocating resources through the budget process, which includes a legislated responsibility to pass a balanced budget

  • Deciding on the recommendations from school boundary and accommodation reviews

  • Engaging in two-way communication with members of the public

  • Assisting people who have a complaint or an issue navigate their way through the system

  • Leaving the day-to-day operations to the hired staff

But I did want to conclude with something that has become more and more obvious and important to me over the years as a trustee.

When I was reading a list of the attributes of an effective school board, in the Good Governance document, chapter four, which is about the role of trustees, and noticed that, along with things like “making informed decisions,” which seems obvious as central to what would make an effective board, it highlighted “working together as a team.”

I’ve been a youth soccer and hockey coach since my first year of university, and have coached school-aged girls in hockey for over 15 years. Without exception, the most successful and most satisfying seasons have been when the girls (and their parents) came together as a team.

The ideal team is one on which the individual players combine their own unique skills and efforts with the effort and unique skills of their teammates to achieve a success greater than the sum of the parts.

But sometimes, the best players – the ones who draw the crowd’s applause, the ones who put on the best show, who show the most technical skill – are not the most valuable players on the team because they have chosen to function outside the team strategy, more concerned about individual accomplishments than team goals. When the most technically skilled players do that, the team is seldom successful and the season is seldom satisfying for anyone – players, parents or coaches.

Similarly, sometimes the trustee who gets the most media coverage or even garners the most community support is not the trustee who is best helping the Board be effective, because he or she is not working with the other trustees as a team.

Because being Trustees really is a team sport.

So I would add another role for trustees to that list we developed throughout this presentation – being a team player: working with the other trustees to accomplish all the other things we mentioned earlier.