The big picture: life as a school board trustee


Those considering running for the office of school trustee in 2018 should understand the mandate of a school board, the role of an individual trustee and the board of trustees as a whole, says education and employment lawyer Sheila MacKinnon.

"People often look to join the school board with a single issue in mind, and that’s not helpful,” MacKinnon tells

“They don’t appreciate that one has to act in the best interest of all students and stakeholders of the board, not just your constituents,” she says.

MacKinnon, managing partner of Shibley Righton LLP’s Windsor office, has given presentations on board of governance issues and says new trustees should be wary of making promises to voters that would require a resolution of the board in order to carry it out.

“A trustee acts as part of a collective on the board as mandated under the Education Act. This role is different than an MPP; there is no party whip.”

She says the community isn’t served if trustees don’t bear in mind the bigger picture.

MacKinnon gives the example of school closings, a hot-button issue in a climate of declining enrolment.

“When I talk to trustees at conferences, I explain that you have to examine staff or committee reports about the schools in question. You have to look at the finances and determine if it’s viable to keep it open,” she says.

Fiscal responsibility is a consideration as there may be a reduction in certain funding if a school is maintained amid declining enrollment numbers, MacKinnon explains.

“You can’t be blind to the realities of a situation but trustees also realize that closing a school may mean they won’t be re-elected,” she says.

But it often depends on how the trustee has handled the situation, MacKinnon says.

“They need to explain to their constituents what a school closing report means. You may love the school, but your child is not getting the best programming when there are only 200 students. You can’t offer all of the courses or all of the sports,” she says.

The goal is for trustees to act together as a strategic board as opposed to an operational board, MacKinnon says.

“You’re there to oversee a strategic plan for that board and then the director of education carries it out,” she notes.

There’s generally a three- to five-year strategic plan and an annual report that explains how the plan is being executed, MacKinnon points out.

Understanding the inner workings of a school board also includes following the correct process if a complaint comes forward about a staff member, MacKinnon says.

“If a constituent comes to a trustee and complains about a teacher or a principal, the best practice is not for a trustee to march into the principal’s office and start to order him or her around. A trustee has no authority to do that,” she says. “The protocol is to ask the constituent to go to the teacher directly. If they’re not satisfied, they then go to the principal. The next step would be to go to the superintendent and then to the director of education.”

Over the years, school boards have become complex institutions with policies, procedures and proper governance in place to ensure they’re properly run.

“School boards are complicated organizations, with unions and staffing. Human resources is now a highly specialized discipline.”

But MacKinnon says trustees don’t have to be experts in all matters.

“One of the most important jobs a board of trustees has is to hire the right director of education to carry out the board's mandate and strategic plan. That is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the board as set out in the Education Act. In my opinion, the best functioning school boards are ones where the board of trustees trust their director of education, but maintain respectful oversight.”

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