Education Minister urged to preserve school board elections

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Laurent Robillard-Cardinal

The Elections Systems Study Panel, chaired by former MP Marlene Jennings, unveiled its final 37-page report on School Board elections,  September 16, but its
findings in favour of maintaining universal suffrage for English school boards were quickly dismissed by Education Minister François Blais.

Laurent Robillard-Cardinal

The Elections Systems Study Panel, chaired by former MP Marlene Jennings, unveiled its final 37-page report on School Board elections,  September 16, but its
findings in favour of maintaining universal suffrage for English school boards were quickly dismissed by Education Minister François Blais.
This quick response did not impress James Shea, WQSB Chairman and Regional Association of West Quebecers (RAWQ) President. “I’m disappointed the Education Minister dismissed this report on the same day it was released. Local MNA’s have the responsibility to look at the report and try to influence the government and
the Education Minister,” said Mr. Shea.
At press time, André Fortin, Pontiac MNA, said he had not read the report and defended his superior’s hasty action. “I understand Mr. Blais had the report before it was released. Our government has been clear that the abolition of school board elections is part of the plan. There are two things of importance for the English-speaking community to know: first, the control of English school boards must remain in the hands of the English-speaking community. Our government is
committed to this. Second, the English-
language education system cannot differ radically from the French-language
system,” said Mr. Fortin.
According to the report, the provincial government has a constitutional duty to respect minority rights in Québec and, thus, must maintain school board elections.
Minister Blais has reiterated his desire to abolish school board elections. He argues the majority of Quebecers are uninterested; voter turnout supports this, and Mr. Fortin hammered that point home.
However, the report states that “citing voter turnout rates as an indication that Québec’s English minority communities are uninterested in exercising their
constitutional rights and are unsupportive of school board elections is misleading. Voter participation in English School Board elections increased from 14.60% in 2003 to 16.88% in 2014; there’s a negative trend, however, in rates for French board elections, with rates declining from 8.40% in 2003 to 5.54% in 2014.”
Locally, the participation rate for English board elections was higher than French board elections, but it remained below 20%. During the last Western Québec election, with polls open from 10 am to 8 pm on a Sunday, voter turnout reached only 10.4%. That result is twice as high as French board elections.
“Yes, the low turnout rate does demand a reform of governance within a general reform of the education system,” said Fortin. The Pontiac MNA said this general reform will respect the constitutional rights of the English-speaking community.
Mangled voter lists
According to Mr. Shea, voter turnout could have been higher if the voter lists were managed better. “At the English school board elections, hundreds of people were turned away because they were on the French school board list. There’s no
correlation between the taxpayer list and the electors list. There are people who pay their taxes to the WQSB and should have a right to vote for the WQSB. That did not happen. Basically this report is saying
‘clean this up’ – there should be no
discouragements to vote,” said Mr. Shea.
The Panel admitted voting turnout is troubling and made recommendations to increase participation. “It must be easier to vote. We heard horror stories about
inaccurate lists, long line-ups at the polls, and the need to travel long distances each way to exercise one’s right to vote. This is unacceptable in the twenty-first century,” indicated Ms. Jennings.
The recommendations include conducting English board elections online or by mail-in ballots, only, and allowing English boards to collaborate with their French board counterparts to revise voter lists for all school boards on their territories.
The Panel controversially recommended the automatic registration to English board voting lists of all English school taxpayers, graduates of English public high schools, English minority youth who turn 18, and parents of children who have
graduated from an English public high school.
Mr. Shea added that since the Minister hasn’t tabled legislation yet, the
government may only be floating trial
balloons to observe public reaction. Not
so, said Mr. Fortin; he said his government will release information about the reform this fall – adding that it will mark the end
of school board elections.
“The strength of elected school
boards is that commissioners have a
special link to the community they serve,” concluded Ms. Jennings. “They are
grass-roots representatives with their ears to the ground. Parents know them and appreciate that they are there to help ensure the education system adapts to
students’ changing needs while preparing them to succeed within Quebec and the wider society. It is not surprising that, despite significant hurdles including
limited financial resources, students in the English system enjoy an above-average performance in regards to graduation and success rates of students.”