The word politics comes from the Greek “politikos”, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens”. Put another way, it is the exercise of governance on behalf of the people. And that is precisely what school trustees do. They exercise governance over a specific and critically important public good – education. They are selected by the citizens of their communities to represent the community’s collective interests related to the education of its future citizens. In this framework, being a politician is the sine qua non of being a school trustee. It defines the trustee as a democratically elected representative of the people, with responsibilities to determine the education aspirations of the community and to be guided accordingly.
When school trustees say they are not political they usually mean that they are not representing any particular political party in their role as school trustee. During elections, most do not run on slates representing official political parties. Once elected, most act and vote independently rather than along any party lines. We are quite used to party affiliation at the provincial and federal levels of government because they are designed to operate on a parliamentary model consisting of more than one political party, each vying to gain the majority of elected members through which to exert its platform on how the province or country should be run. One party is in power and the other has a role to act as a check and balance to that power by opposing the policies proposed by the party holding the majority. School board governance, on the other hand, is not intended to operate under the parliamentary model. School boards work within the “corporate governance” model where the board “as a whole” is considered to be a single entity. The board only speaks as a single entity and members of the board only speak on behalf of the board when asked to do so. Individually they have no official voice or power in the outside world. There is a fiduciary duty to the good of the whole over those of specific interest groups or political parties. In the corporate governance model, boards need to bring together the perspectives of all groups to make decisions in the best interests of the whole community. Unfortunately, some trustees - especially when first elected - are not familiar with the corporate governance model of governance, or that it is a requirement built into legislation. Their interests may be more aligned with those of some specific group and they may spend much of their time pursuing those interests rather than working collaboratively to gain consensus for the good of the whole. This can lead to “for us or against us” sides, creating tension and disharmony.
Another issue for some boards is that advocacy (seeking to influence the decisions of another group towards some preferred cause) gets confused with party politics. It is fair to say that most school trustees would see advocacy on behalf of students as one of their major roles. For Canadian school trustees, this generally means trying to influence the provincial government to provide more funding, greater autonomy, or some other action that will benefit students. As the provincial government controls almost all of the funding to public schools and sets the rules under which school districts must operate, advocacy is a necessary and legitimate role for school boards. Problems can arise, however, when trustees become blatantly partisan in their advocacy efforts. The goal shifts from trying to influence the current government (of whatever political stripe) to efforts to discredit and replace the current party in power. When this type of rhetoric finds its way into board business and debate it can set individual trustees against each other and work against the intended collaborative nature of the corporate governance board. To repeat, school boards have a legitimate role in advocating for the resources they need to support their students, but when advocacy turns into partisan sniping the best interests of students can be compromised.
Are school trustees politicians? Yes - they are publicly elected to represent the people of their community. Should school trustees be advocates? Absolutely yes - they have a responsibility to ensure adequate resources for their students from their provincial government. Should political party partisanship be part of a school board’s work? Not in this writer’s opinion.