Our School Board is Integral to a Healthy Municipal Ecosystem
From the Nest, Issue 14
by Sabreina Dahab and Ahona Medhi
Schools and local school boards are critical aspects of a broader ecosystem that informs the health, safety and overall sustainability of a municipality. When elections come around, however, the trustee role often slips through the cracks, effectively allowing critical education issues to be placed on the back burner.
The consideration of the impacts that trustees have on the larger community and their schools is neglected; the trustee role is merely seen as a stepping stone for many people to City Council, to Queen’s Park, and even Parliament.
What happens when we ignore such a crucial part of our educational ecosystem? The simple answer is that we get stuck with bad leadership and students and families bear the brunt.
We have seen this over and over with trustee misconduct at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) over the last few years.
The truth is that we need to elect trustees that are invested in students. We need leaders who are committed to listening to parents and building an education system where all students can thrive.
There are currently over 50,000 students enrolled in HWDSB schools. Students in both elementary and secondary schools continue to face a spectrum of challenges, including but not limited to school closures, an insufficient number of Educational Assistants (EAs), and inadequate COVID-19 safety measures.
When student voices are sidelined and parent voices are dismissed, our school system fails to uphold its own mandates.
This year, Hamilton residents will be voting for trustees in the upcoming municipal election on October 24, 2022, so it’s important to ask a few questions. What do trustees actually do? What role do they have in decision making? How do trustees influence policy decisions and budgetary allocations? Do trustees even have power?
Let’s break it down.
Trustees are elected into their positions during municipal elections.
Contrary to popular belief, the mandate of trustees is to be public servants of constituents, parents, and most importantly, students.
Trustees have the fiduciary responsibility to serve with integrity. It is their obligation to make decisions on behalf of their electors and relay information back to constituents. The question is – why are they currently failing to do so?
While trustees often fail to consult with their diverse electorate, this disconnect is also a product of inadequate accountability processes.
What happens when the body responsible for upholding accountability measures for the school board can’t adhere to its own accountability processes or isn’t able to effectively represent students?
When Wards 1 and 2 recently lost their trustee, Christine Bingham, who resigned for personal reasons, what happens to the students and families across those wards? What mechanisms are then set in place to ensure that students and families are supported through this transition (a process which took three months)?
These questions also force us to reckon with the lived experiences of Black and racialized students in the HWDSB. Over the last few years, we have watched Black and racialized students fight racism, discrimination and ableism without any real support or tangible change from board leaders, including trustees.
Real support would’ve meant that students were believed when they spoke out against racism. It would’ve meant that policies around equity would have been informed by the demands that students had put forward for years.
Real tangible support would have resulted in deep engagement with issues that students were experiencing, issues that they continue to experience.
Alongside Hamilton Students for Justice (HS4J), formerly known as HWDSB Kids Need help, we brought forward hundreds of lived experiences and stories from youth who were harassed and carded in schools by police.
Students spent years fighting for change, but the HWDSB, as an institution, got to decide when to act on our stories and deem them valid. It took the board one meeting to terminate a program that caused years of trauma for students; it took them four hours to finally act on our four year battle for the basic safety and dignity of Black students.
Real transformative changes are not as far fetched as institutions make them out to be. We see this all the time when we fight for change. So why do we have to spend years fighting for change that can so quickly be enacted when leadership listens and believes students?
Trustees had the choice to sell the former Delta Secondary School property to affordable housing organization (Indwell), but actively chose to exclude community voices. They had the choice to challenge the Education Act and address our growing gentrification crisis, but instead chose to contribute to it by selling the building to a condo developer.
Students could have been spared years of violence had board members listened the moment they spoke out. The same applies to school closures that have drastically impacted students and constituents in downtown Hamilton.
Trustees will also be making a decision about the former highschool in Ward 2, Sir John A Macdonald Secondary.
Decisions about vital land assets implicate the school board in extremely consequential decisions that have impacts on students and the broader community. If the city decides not to purchase the empty building, the HWDSB will be left with a decision to make, a decision that could mean life or death for many families and students in Hamilton.
Standing up to the Ministry of Education and the Education Act and making policy decisions that prioritize students every single time is one of the ways we measure the effectiveness of trustees’ leadership.
Earlier in March, despite the Ministry of Education and Provincial regulation around mask removals, the HWDSB voted to keep mask mandates in school for students. Despite the HWDSB’s attempts to prioritize student safety in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, the Ministry of Education doubled down.
The HWDSB has shown us, by continuing to mandate masks, that school boards can prioritize students’ safety despite Provincial education regulations. This should be an expectation every single time.
Why does all of this matter? Because trustees will continue to have power over these decisions and they will continue to control where the school board invests money, who they collaborate with, who they prioritize, and who gets left behind.
This municipal election is not just about City Council but also about trustees. So, this October, when the municipal election comes around, let’s set a new precedent for trustee elections.
Let’s engage with those putting their names forward. Let’s ask the hard questions and meaningfully engage with trustee candidates, because students deserve leaders who truly embody the electorate, students deserve leadership that we can trust.
Sabreina Dahab (she/her) is a recent graduate from McMaster University’s Department of Political Science; over the last few years, she has been involved with Hamilton Students for Justice (HS4J), which successfully advocated for the elimination of the police in schools program; she is currently the Diverse Communities Outreach Coordinator at the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton & Area (SACHA) and a member of the Hamilton Encampment Support Network (HESN)
Ahona Mehdi (she/they) is a second year undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa, but is based in Hamilton; she is a member of Hamilton Students for Justice (HS4J) and a Researcher and Youth Action Council member at the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO); from 2019 to 2020, they were also a Student Trustee with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB); she works to create networks for racialized, disabled and queer youth to connect, co-learn, heal, love and reimagine a world where students can learn outside of these carceral systems