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School trustee says position still matters despite criticism

By Lashaina Blair-White [1]

BELLEVILLE – Are school boards and school-board trustees still relevant?

It’s a question that has been around for a long time, and was raised again in a recent Toronto Star opinion column [2]. In it, a Star columnist on Ontario politics, Martin Regg Cohn, says that school boards are outdated and should be eliminated. While Cohn focuses primarily on the troubled Toronto District School Board, he says that Ontario’s school boards in general “have become redundant bureaucracies that duplicate the provincial education ministry.”

But Mary Hall, re-elected in the November municipal election as a trustee for Belleville/Thurlow on the Hastings-Prince Edward School Board, disagrees.

“I think people in the community are pleased with the school board and the kind of services we do provide,” said Hall, who has been a trustee since 1994.

The board has done a lot for the communities it serves, she said: “We have new schools. We opened our school in Stirling [3], and one in Tweed [4]. We had an official opening of a school last week, Harmony Public School [5] in Thurlow. We also will be building a school in Trenton.”

School trustees “are the oldest serving publicly elected politicians in Ontario,” Hall said. “And it’s important because it provides a link from the community to the school system. It means that a school board is sensitive and responsive to the needs of the community and the students and parents it serves.”

Asked what her response is to those who want to get rid of school boards, Hall said: “We have a good working system. I have served on the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association [6] for several years, and from bigger boards – some of their concerns are different than ours. But I think we are doing well. We are certainly a system that works.”

The Star column said that the percentage of voters casting ballots for school trustees “can dip as low as 10 per cent, which is hardly a model of democratic accountability.”

But in November’s election in Belleville, there were more votes for candidates for the Hastings-Prince Edward board school board than for the seven mayoral candidates: 17,286 vs. 15,067.