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Experiences of a School Board Trustee

Editor's Note: Ross Eadie has worked in many political campaign positions in ten elections since 1998, including as official agent and campaign manager. For more information, visit {http://www.rosseadie.ca} and follow the biographical link.

The Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg, where our sons are enrolled, presented an opportunity to prove that I could win an election and be an effective politician. For years I had advocated for community access as someone who is blind and as a community member. I also believe a community effort needs to be utilized in delivering a public education to all kids, including those with disabilities. The use of schools by community groups, better graduation rates for aboriginal students, and a well-rounded school program were also part of my platform. From this position, my 2002 school board trustee campaign began.

This campaign was one of the loneliest of my political career, as running for a school board position is not a priority because city council runs at the same time. Nevertheless, I hooked up with a first-time candidate who I met through the local Labour Council. Although she had no idea what kind of an effort was required to win an election, she had some money and I had the know-how. Since her family and work put high demands on her time, she recruited kids and teenagers to deliver pamphlets, while I usually found myself alone searching for doorbells, knocking on doors and trying to find mailboxes. The Honourable Gord MacKintosh, Member of the Legislative Assembly for the area, said he had seen me campaigning and was proud of a New Democrat with such courage. But I wouldn't say courage--obsession. This drive helped me win a seat as a trustee.

I was concerned there might be a big difference between my vision of public education and that of the other eight Board members. MY belief was that not enough effort was being put into inclusion of students and staff with disabilities, and I assumed I would have to fight for blindness-related accommodations for myself, but I was very surprised at what I found.

Management was already considering computerizing the whole Board agenda and meeting-related documentation. In fact, Seven Oaks was one of the first in Manitoba to go totally electronic. To accommodate, a more powerful laptop was purchased for me. Now I could listen to the over 180 pages of information for each formal Board meeting, held at least once a month during the school year, and an average of 20 pages for many other meetings I attended. In addition, architectural drawings and pictures of new schools were described for me, and last-minute papers read aloud for all trustees.

My Board peers and I turned out to have a similar vision of public education. Everyone was interested in inclusion for all people in the Seven Oaks School Division, though it is not easy to put this into practice, even with a consensus. I was included in the work of the School Division at the same level as the other trustees, and there was no pressure for me to only focus on inclusion for students and workers with disabilities, although I did take on a number of these issues. Throughout, my approach was to use humour to make my colleagues feel at ease, and they were quite receptive.

Being a school board trustee is a complex and wide-ranging job, as you balance voter concerns with the needs of students, parents and staff. It is easy to get bogged down by the interests of others when the reason public school exists is to educate our students. Addressing the concerns of learners who face barriers also requires critical thinking and an openness to new ideas. Seven Oaks attempts to keep this focus at all times. During my term as trustee, I believe I provided a respectful consideration of administrator, teacher, paraprofessional, secretary and custodian needs, while reminding people it is the student we are there to serve.

My experience as an advocate in the disability community was valuable in assisting me to perform my trustee duties, as in helping me to maintain "focus" and "balance". One of my more enjoyable tasks was hearing about and allocating time for school and teacher proposals to take on professional development research and study--amazing proposals dealing with the inclusion direction of the Seven Oaks School Division. My impression was my questions were highly appreciated by proponents. When the Manitoba Association of School board Trustees, of which I was a member, asked me to represent it on a consultation committee set up to implement a new public school law ensuring an appropriate education for exceptional students, I accepted. I wanted to make an impact and improve the education system, in Seven Oaks and beyond.

Seven Oaks fully included me when I didn't think it would happen. I am so grateful. Everyone respected the effort I put into my role, and on my retirement they demonstrated their appreciation with applause--very humbling. My days as a school board trustee were some of the best, not to mention fulfilling, of my life. A second term would have been most appropriate but I decided to run for City Council, where the pay is full-time. My family needs a home and other resources for a good quality of life. Too bad we cannot be paid monetarily for all the volunteer advocacy we do on a daily basis!

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