Are school trustees politicians? It seems like the obvious answer is yes. They are elected by the public, held accountable to voters, and their business is conducted in open board meetings—all qualities of a politician. What’s more, many school trustees use their position as a stepping stone to higher political office, such as Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles, Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Multiculturalism Michael Ford, and former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
However, not everyone agrees with this assessment. Recently, the Durham District School Board (DDSB) voted to suspend one of their trustees, Linda Stone, for allegedly making discriminatory comments. This was based on a report written by senior workplace investigator Benjamin Drory, who argued that trustees are not politicians and are primarily accountable to their fellow trustees and the board’s Code of Conduct. He also suggested that trustees are limited in their freedom of speech and must remain consistent with the Ontario Human Rights Code and Ministry of Education directives.
If these are the parameters trustees must abide by, one might wonder why we even bother to have elections in the first place. The point of elections is to allow voters to choose their representatives, not have their voices silenced. In addition, there are many Ontario school trustees who regularly use their positions as political soapboxes without consequence.
Two years ago, the Manitoba government introduced Bill 64, which would have abolished elected school boards and replaced them with appointed officials. The Manitoba School Boards Association argued that trustees are elected to represent their local communities, and after months of public pressure, the Manitoba government withdrew Bill 64. This suggests that trustees are indeed supposed to give voice to the people who elected them.
School boards are most likely to develop good education policies when trustees are able to speak freely and debate ideas. Instead of seeking to silence trustees who espouse different ideas, their colleagues should engage them in debate. In the end, trustees are accountable to voters, not to each other.