School trustees in Manitoba are being penalized for expressing opinions or actions deemed offensive or politically incorrect

Michael-Zwaagstra: School trustees silenced by school board codes of conductIt was just a few short years ago that the Pallister government introduced Bill 64. Among other things, Bill 64 would have abolished school boards and replaced elected trustees with provincial appointees.

The reaction was fast and furious. The Manitoba School Board Association and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society expressed their strong opposition. So did many parent groups.

In short, opponents claimed that Bill 64 was anti-democratic and draconian. They pointed out that since school trustees are accountable to the public through the electoral process, trustees are a vital part of the education system. In essence, trustees represent students, parents, and taxpayers.

When Bill 64 was withdrawn shortly after Heather Stefanson became premier, Bill 64’s opponents celebrated this decision as a victory. That’s why it’s ironic that many of the same people are now actively undermining the legitimacy of school trustees.

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Specifically, we are seeing the weaponization of school board codes of conduct. Trustees who say anything deemed offensive or politically incorrect are being suspended by their peers, sometimes for months without pay.

For example, former Louis Riel School Division trustee Francine Champagne was suspended no less than three times last year before she eventually resigned. Her offences consisted of making allegedly transphobic and racist Facebook posts and not submitting some paperwork on time.

Now, one can certainly argue that Champagne displayed questionable judgment. Elected officials, including school trustees, must exercise discernment in what they post on social media. It’s a basic requirement of the job.

Nevertheless, the rush to suspend Champagne essentially short-circuited the democratic process. Whether one agrees with her or not, Champagne received the same democratic mandate as the rest of her fellow trustees. It’s a concerning precedent when a school board majority uses its code of conduct to essentially silence a trustee who refuses to tow the party line.

Similarly, veteran River East Transcona School Division trustee Rod Giesbrecht has received two three-month suspensions during the 2023-24 school year. Giesbrecht’s suspensions resulted from the fact that he shared confidential information discussed during a closed board meeting.

Based on his comments to the Winnipeg Free Press, Giesbrecht thought it was essential that he speak with a Winnipeg city councillor about a piece of land that could potentially be a new school site. Whether he was right or not, removing Giesbrecht from his duties for months appears to be an overly harsh punishment. Less drastic options were available, such as temporarily limiting Giesbrecht’s access to confidential information.

The reality is that democracy is a messy business. Not only are elections often hotly contested, but debates happen in the public arena. Sometimes, the debates get heated, and it often becomes difficult for colleagues on opposite sides to work together after disagreeing on an important issue.

And yet, that is exactly what they must do. Suspending trustees every time they say something other trustees deem offensive or every time they talk to the wrong person about a “confidential” matter short circuits the democratic process.

By rejecting Bill 64, Manitobans sent a clear message that they want democracy to be respected in school boards. Trustees have no business using code of conduct rules to remove pesky colleagues.

Ultimately, it is up to the voters, not their fellow trustees, to decide whether a trustee belongs in office.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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