If you were concerned about changes to program offerings at your child’s school, or the state of school yard equipment, would you know who to consult? What if you needed to understand your child’s eligibility for support services in the school setting, or wanted to better understand how the school taxes and fees you pay are used, would you know who to call? You might be surprised to learn that the best person to reach out to in many of these cases is your community’s school commissioner.

“As a commissioner, I’m like a branch, a voice for the citizens in my ward, but the way I see it, I’m a commissioner for all the schools,” explains Emilio Migliozzi, who is one of nine elected members of the Council of Commissioners for the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board (SWLSB). The Council also has three parent commissioners, one for the elementary and high school sector, and one to represent students with special needs within the board. Laval Families Magazine contacted several members of Council to get their perspective and advice as to what citizens can do when they have concerns to bring forward.

The current Council, including its Chairperson, Jennifer Maccarone, was elected last November. Each member attends monthly Council meetings, but in addition to that, they attend multiple school Governing Board meetings in their wards, school fundraisers, graduations and special events. Your local commissioner can assist you in getting the answers you need, or connect you with the right person to talk to within the board. Commissioners give up a significant amount of personal time attending school and community-related functions in the evenings and on weekends, or preparing for upcoming meetings, despite having full-time careers outside of their role as commissioners.

With continued cutbacks to the education sector in our province, the Council has had to make a lot of tough decisions regarding how budgets are spent. “We attend a lot of meetings about education strategies and success plans, and we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we’re going to make ends meet [for the school board],” says Peter MacLaurin, who is a former teacher and has been a commissioner for over 15 years. MacLaurin is also an active member of his community and has taken part in municipal government on and off for many years. “Our role as commissioners is to make sure that the students in the public sector get the best possible education we can offer…We try to make sure that all students in the whole school board get an equitable kind of treatment,” MacLaurin explains.

Many commissioners have children who attend schools within the SWLSB’s vast territory, but their interest in protecting public school education extends to also protecting the rights of the citizens in their wards. Despite numerous hours per week dedicated to their role as commissioner, the average stipend received by a commissioner is approximately $3000-$6000 per year.

“Commissioners have an important role to play in community vitality, not only within the school setting, but also as minority group. They are there to represent the needs and concerns of our students and their parents,” explains Maccarone. “As Chairperson, I’m responsible for clarifying and articulating the board’s goals and direction, policies…and ensuring that we have community engagement.”

SWLSB has a territory roughly the size of Belgium, which spans over more than 150 municipalities, and is the third largest English board in Quebec. Each commissioner is a resident of one of the areas attached to their territory, and therefore can offer insight and perspective during decision-making.

“We have a very diverse territory, so as commissioners it’s important that we work together to make sure the school board runs effectively,” says Sergio Di Marco, Elementary Parent Commissioner. Though Di Marco does not have the right to vote on issues as a parent commissioner (as he was not elected through universal suffrage but rather through a voting process at Parents’ Committee), he, along with the other parent commissioners, nevertheless bring to the table the concerns of parents and the community at large.

In recent media coverage, the provincial government has alluded to removing the election process for commissioners, and instead, appointing government officials. In recent years, there has even been talk of abolishing school boards completely. With plenty of misconceptions about the role school boards play in our communities and the cost factor involved in having boards govern their own schools, it can be a daunting task deciding whether one is for or against this proposition.

“If the government moves to appointing members, we will effectively lose the right to govern our schools. If you do not have a community member that is elected by you, to represent your rights, you will not have a voice at that table,” says Maccarone.

Guy Gagnon, who was a commissioner for two years prior to the last election, sees the role of the Council and the school board as one that is a necessary step in protecting the future of our communities. “Taxpayers invest in the future of their community,” explains Gagnon. “Our schools are those that are going to churn out the doctors of the future—those who will eventually treat you when you’re going to be retired—so whether you have kids in the system or not, you still have a vested interest in protecting your community. We’re forming the global citizen of tomorrow.”

Maccarone, in a recent press release on behalf of SWLSB, expressed concern for the direction school governance may be heading if school boards no longer have a say in what services are available in a particular school or territory. “Our communities are so tied to our schools, so if this happens, it will dramatically decrease the services available. Our rights in this province as a minority group have been steadily eroding over time, and the last thing we have left is the right to manage our school boards through democratically elected officials who represent our communities,” deplores Maccarone.

Vicky Kaliotzakis, who has been an active community member and volunteer in the Chomedey area prior to being elected commissioner last year, stresses the importance of individual schools having their individual needs met, and fears that this will be lost if the right to elect commissioners is taken away. “The potential impact this could have will affect the success of our students. If we lose the local right to govern our school boards then we essentially lose the right to control our school systems. It’s very important that we protect our communities and be able to govern education as we see fit, especially as a minority,” says Kaliotzakis.

Gagnon also questions the effectiveness of appointed officials: “If [the government] is appointing people out of Quebec City, where are these people going to be based? What are their motivations? How are they going to know the needs of the communities they represent?”

Ailsa Pehi, who has three children in the public school system, first got involved in school governance over 13 years ago by joining her children’s school Governing Board, before being elected commissioner last year. Pehi feels that her role as commissioner is to serve the people directly. “We love what we do, and people should be calling us and reaching out to us whenever there’s a concern,” says Pehi. “We are here for you.”

MacLaurin adds that having an elected community representative in your area allows citizens to make contact with their commissioner as soon as there is concern. “I live here. I’m not in Quebec City or Ottawa. People know where I live and when they call me, I’m the one taking the call—not a personal secretary,” says MacLaurin. “As commissioners, we are directly accountable and accessible.”

With large uncertainty surrounding school board governance looming in our province, Maccarone urges parents and taxpayers to contact their MNA. “Let them know that your rights are not up for negotiation,” says Maccarone. She adds that though there may be room for improvement with regards to school governance, there is no room to remove universal suffrage. “Whether you’re parent, a student, a taxpayer or teacher, you ARE the school board. SAVE IT, so that you can continue to protect your rights,” urges Maccarone.