edmonton election 2010: battle over the public school board reveals a nervous old guard.

A heated battle has been brewing over Edmonton’s Public School Board. ¬†Although it was re-ignited by communities angry that their Public School Board Trustees were not responsive to their concerns about the closure of neighborhood schools earlier this year, this battle is not new. In many ways, it is a conflict between the “old guard” and a newly involved group of community members who believe that the school board should be more than a bureaucracy of education administrators.¬†Experience is good, but for too long the board has been dominated by retired administrators and civil servants who refuse to see themselves act as leaders in our City.

Two elections ago, this battle raged between the old guard made up of long-time incumbent Trustees and members of the now-defunct provincial parent advocacy group APPEAL (Albertans Promoting Public Education and Learning). In that election, APPEAL did not run a slate of candidates, but many of their members decided to step up from years as education advocates to stand as Trustee candidates in their communities.

The day before election day in 2004, the Edmonton Journal published an op-ed from Leif Stolee, longtime educator and administrator of Edmonton public schools, who effectively claimed that unless you are an educator, former administrator or have served on the public school board for at least three or four terms, you are not competent to serve as a trustee. It is likely that this op-ed side-swiped many of the new challengers and helped boost many of the old guard incumbents over the top in closely contested races for Edmonton Public School Board.

Fast forward to 2010 and the same dynamic is in play as the old guard and their supporters are still trying to hang on to their positions. Are they running scared this time?

In Ward G, incumbent Trustee George Rice has refused to debate challenger Sarah Hoffman, who has been running an aggressive campaign against him. In Ward B, I am told that Trustee Ken Shipka has also refused to debate his opponents. Mr. Shipka has been an invisible Trustee after he was forced to apologize after calling aboriginal people “nocturnal” in 2008.

One of the more heated battles is in Ward F, which has drawn three candidates to replace five-term Trustee Don Fleming. This week, candidate Bev Sawyer chastized the media for focusing on the rift between the School Board and the larger community. In addition. Mrs. Sawyer (a retired Principal and administrator) used her best online Principal voice to scold fellow candidate Michael Janz for… being too young?

Mrs. Sawyer appears to have taken an issue with comments that Mr. Janz made during interviews with CBC last week:

“The reason we’re seeing more younger candidates, fewer of the retired administrators, and more community advocates is because there is this growing realization that decisions made at the school board level will effect all Edmontonians” – Michael Janz.

Mrs. Sawyer apologized after being caught having not done her homework when she posted the bizarre attack on her website accusing Mr. Janz of having attended a private school. In reality, Mr. Janz attended public schools from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

As the old guard and their supporters desperately try to keep their hold on Edmonton’s Public School Board, they are missing a larger point. Legislation expected to be introduced by Education Minister Dave Hancock in the Spring Session of the Alberta Legislature may further curtail the administrative powers of School Boards, potentially even replacing them with partially-appointed Boards.

When the time comes when School Boards are challenged to stand up and prove their relevance, who will be best fit to do this – an old guard who have allowed the role of Trustees to wither into glorified administrators or a new group of people who understand why School Trustees need to be relevant and responsible to the whole community?

10 thoughts on “edmonton election 2010: battle over the public school board reveals a nervous old guard.

  1. Laura Shutiak

    Great post Dave. Things are heating up down here in Calgary with school trustee races. I’m finding that many, many voters are looking for trustees who represent voters, who are willing to be accountable for their actions. People are taking an interest!

    And, for a change, we’re getting some media coverage of trustee issues.

    http://www.calgaryherald.com/charity+defends+staffing+expenses/3647890/story.html

    http://www.calgaryherald.com/columnists/Braid+building+space+future+politicians/3623593/story.html

    http://www.calgaryherald.com/business/Teacher+cutting+school+board+spend+year/3587993/story.html

    Reply
  2. Neil M.

    As an undecided voter in Ward 9 and Ward F, thank you for drawing this little spat to my attention. Sawyer has proved she is either too malicious or too incompetent to serve as a trustee. I’m astounded that a woman of such experience would resort to such petty bullying. This is exactly the WRONG kind of person that we need leading our school system. The worst of it is that she was too dumb to even fact-check her allegations!

    No wonder the province wants to turf school boards.

    Reply
  3. Leask

    I’m alarmed at Ms. Sawyer’s dismissive attitude towards a fellow candidate for no other reason than his youth. One of the duties of the school system is to help encourage young people to be engaged, active citizens, and the implications of her statement seem contrary to the spirit of the trustee position. I’m not sure someone with such disdain for youth should be in a position of leadership of it.

    Reply
  4. Dustin Bajer

    As an educator, I’m very happy to see some outside blood running in this election; not that former teachers and administrators should be overlooked. I do feel, however, that the article is right in that there is a shift occurring where-by communities are recognizing that school board decisions directly affect communities.

    I’ve been working with students at Jasper Place High School to create a perennial food forest in the schools courtyard. In addition to providing hands on opportunities, cross-curricular learning, and food for the culinary program, I believe that the program could be intimately tied into the community with a public garden. Amazing things can happen when schools are able to become community hubs; I think this is the direction we need to be moving, and that the change in candidate demographic is reflecting this.

    Schools should be the most forward thinking institutions that we have.

    Dustin (Jasper Place Permaculture)

    Reply
  5. Steve C.

    Up until last week I didn’t give a hoot about the school boards trustee election. I don’t have any kids. I was more interested in the Ward 11 city councillor race than the Ward G Public School Board election.

    Then I heard a news story on 630 CHED reporting that George Rice decided to pull out of a parent-run trustee forum.

    http://www.630ched.com/Channels/Reg/NewsLocal/Story.aspx?ID=1289165

    The school closure issue piqued my interest so I checked out the websites of Sarah Hoffman and Rice.

    The fact that Rice is not willing to defend his decisions as the incumbent trustee speaks volumes.
    On the other hand, Hoffman understands schools are essential for the vibrancy of communities.

    So even if you are not a parent or your kids have grown to adults, spend some time to research who is the best school board trustee.

    Reply
  6. Wayne

    ^^^^^^ “As the real Joe Albertan, I declare school boards are a waste of money.”

    Joe Albertan does not post on this website.

    Reply
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