ALL PONTIAC – Voters will pick a new council of commissioners and its president for both English and French language school boards, November 2 from 10 A.M to 8 P.M. Voting takes place at various locations, with an advance poll on October 26, 12 noon to 8 P.M. All residents should have received notification of their voting location and the board to which they are registered.
Voters will pick from three candidates for president of the Council of Commissioners (CoC). For commissioners, each zone has its own candidates. For the MRC Pontiac, Division 3 (Shawville, Bristol, Clarendon, Thorne and Portage-du-Fort) will pick its representative later, since there is no candidate here; Michael McCrank was acclaimed in Division 2 (Bryson to Rapides-des-Joachims), and Joanne Labadie was acclaimed to Division 11 (east of Bristol); the by-election for Division 3 will take place later this year.
The Liberal government has said it will re-examine the need for independent school boards if election participation rates remain low. The CAQ party has already proposed merging the school boards with MRCs due to lack of public interest.
For president . . .
Three candidates are running for the president’s chair: Andre Choquette, Clement Belanger, and James Shea.
James Shea has been a WQSB Commissioner since the change to linguistic boards. He is involved with the local English community on several levels, including as new president of the Regional Association of West Quebecers. He is a veteran leader of the national Canadian Parents for French and believes the Board needs strong leadership from the community, especially strengthening French as the second language in the public sphere. Shea favours cooperation and creating partnerships to expand the board’s offerings and services. “Learning also occurs outside the classroom and we must work with the community’s resources. Parents are the most important educators in a child’s life so we have to have a school system that works with them,” he said.
Clement Belanger works for the federal government, and is very involved with Scouts Canada. Belanger’s dissatisfaction with the stagnating status quo is what led him to run. “The WQSB is not up to par with what the French system is offering in terms of programming; it makes me feel like we are second class citizens. English schools don’t have the International Baccalaureate program, the Sport-Études program, or the Arts-Études program,” he explained. He feels this accounts for the English board’s continuing loss of students, a matter he says must be addressed more seriously.
Andre Choquette has worked at Canadian Heritage for the past 15 years and a lack of communication is what led him to run for chair. “I have been watching what is going on with the commissions and the restrictions of their budgets and so on, and find the communication we get from the school board is pitiful. You can’t expect a population to support you and the institution if you aren’t communicating with them or if they don’t see you as actually representing what they want,” he said, adding that the CoC needs to be composed of more than just “dedicated administrators.” “We need someone competent in the subject matter, who is engaged, and willing to communicate with the media and the population, whose voices will become loud enough to influence politicians.”
Voter turnout is an issue
With this poll, school elections in West Quebec will follow a new electoral map. The changes reduced WQSB commissionaires’ wards from 19 to 11. During the 2007 election, voter turnout was poor and candidates were scarce. Of the 19 positions on the board, 16 were picked by acclamation; this year, five seats were picked by acclamation and one has no candidate at all.
“There’s so much more the WQSB can do. In Ontario, the school boards have a marketing strategy with ads in the media and on buses. If people feel their school board is doing great things, they would want to get involved. The more we do and the better publicity we get, the more people will be willing to run,” said candidate Belanger.
Choquette believes the lack of interest stems from a lack of communication. “When there is a tendency to not actively communicate with the public and when the wrong kind of people are being elected, the population won’t feel engaged and represented, and in the end, won’t want to be part of that kind of operation.”
Some claim the public’s lack of interest is due to the limited powers and influence of the commissioners. “Basically 100% of funding is determined by the province, so there’s not a lot of discretion with funding, but there is discretion as to how it is applied,” Mr. Shea contended; “Parents (can) have good input into the operation of their schools through their schools’ governing boards and many of their needs are best met at that level. But you need an infrastructure of resources, leadership and financing to ensure that needs of local schools are met – the commissioners,” he added.
Critics have pointed out that the commissioners deal largely with housekeeping and maintenance, but Mr. Belanger argues this lack of influence is not an issue with the public. He recognizes that decisions made by the CoC may not always be implemented. “The board does have a great deal of influence and is there to represent the community and the parents. Like any other government body with elected officials, advice from the CoC is given to the minister who decides if they will go with the advice or do something else,” he explained.
Choquette believes this problem can be rectified. “If there is a large enough mass of the population who are well informed, who all feel the same way, and support their school boards, the government won’t go against them if they want to be re-elected,” he speculated.
Residents registered with the French-language school board will choose from a different slate of candidates and vote for their commissioners on the same date.