“Most of the people I’ve spoken to have been shocked to learn the UGDSB’s operating budget was over $430,000,000. I believe it’s so important for more of us to have this awareness and to know the trustees and the process by which the budget is developed and programs are funded.”
Why are you running to become a trustee?
I am running for Trustee because I want to serve my community and influence how our children are educated. I have observed a lack of public engagement in politics recently and even less so with regard to how our school boards are are governed. I don’t want to stand idly by and risk our most cherished institutions faltering through lack of engagement or attention. Most of the people I’ve spoken to have been shocked to learn the UGDSB’s operating budget was over $430,000,000. I believe it’s so important for more of us to have this awareness and to know the trustees and the process by which the budget is developed and programs are funded.
I am also inspired by the fond memories of my late grandmother, who taught for many years in Orangeville. I spent some late summers with her at school preparing her classroom for the coming year and listening to her talk with such passion about her students. I want to do all I can to support the many passionate educators like her who make such an impact on the lives of their students every day.
What is the role of school board trustee as you understand it?
Trustees are elected representatives from the communities they serve who are responsible and accountable for student achievement, implementing and measuring program success and managing the operating and capital budgets. They are often the primary point of contact for many parents with concerns about their children or with navigating programs and policies. I believe an equally important part of being a trustee helping to facilitate conversations and be a translation layer between parents and administrators.
Tell us a bit about your background and experience, and how that will inform the way you work as a trustee?
Throughout my career, I have been at the forefront of technological change. I took one of the first “Multimedia Production Technician” courses offered, learning about digital video, website production and interactive CD-ROMs – remember those? My first major job after school was in the marketing and web development department of a major real estate company where I learned the value of human centred design and clear communications during the rise of the dot com boom and bust.
From there I moved into project and program management and spent many years in the software consulting industry, managing multi-million dollar budgets and further honing my critical communication and mediation skills. Most recently, I have led technology innovation teams and now work in the Human Resources department for a major bank, managing the delivery of strategic programs.
Outside of my day jobs, I have always been engaged with local politics. I consider myself to be a policy geek and frequently read the long form reports from projects near to me and also watch council meetings or read the minutes afterwards. I am curious and passionate about how our governments and boards function on our behalf.
I will use my extensive experience with communications, marketing and program leadership along with my passion for knowing the details to build consensus, deliver results and ensure our community is always represented.
What do you think was the most consequential decision made by the board during the 2018-2022 term?
The 2018-2022 term was extremely challenging with all of the curve balls thrown by the pandemic. Beyond the many decisions and initiatives to support the pandemic response and transitioning to remote learning, the review of policing in our schools stands out. Striking a committee to research and to gather and maintain more data about police interactions was a good move that will better inform how we leverage them going forward. I am a fan of using data to inform decisions. The committee rightly called out the lack of data across the province in general and also the lack of a local database with information about Police interactions in UGDSB schools. Having this information to review and base policies off of going forward will certainly result in better abilities to make decisions.
Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on schools, students, staff and educators, but it’s not over. How will you help to ensure that schools throughout the board can weather any potential future phases of the pandemic?
My impression during the pandemic from the many parents I know and from teachers in my own extended family is that the transition from in person to remote learning wasn’t always done smoothly. Timely communications and adequate support systems were often lacking and our teachers struggled to maintain a consistent level of instruction for their students. Progress has been made and many systems improved since the pandemic started, but we need to learn from this time to ensure we have more robust systems and communication plans going forward.
The pandemic may be easing, but these same systems can support future outbreaks or help during climate or other local emergencies that may arise. It would be a shame if we squandered all that we learned, both good and bad, and simply returned to business as usual. I will encourage us to review how we did, learn from any mistakes and embrace bold ideas as we prepare for the future.
The Government of Ontario has announced direction to address education gaps caused by students’ experiences throughout the pandemic, how will you ensure that no student falls through any of those gaps?
The funding and some of the specifics recently announced about additional front-line staff, more tutoring and increased mental health initiatives are a really good step. I believe we need to consider both education gaps and how our students are doing as individuals. Are they OK? Are we seeing challenges with social skills or reliance on technology after such long stretches at home?
The tutoring aspect in particular is interesting and may present an opportunity for our board to deliver something special. Can we find a way to provide more fine grained support groups that can help identify both education gaps but also potential health and well-being challenges? Getting our students into smaller supported environments may be an ideal way to get a truer picture of how they’re doing as a whole person and help us to develop more tailored approaches to close the education gaps or identify further supports.
The mental health of students was an issue before the pandemic, and the pandemic has generated even more desperate need in many cases. What can be done to get more resources and assistance for students of all ages?
We need to continue to talk about mental health and wellness and continuously break down any stigmas or other barriers to ensure, at a minimum, that students feel comfortable coming forward. The tutoring groups or other similar approaches may help us by creating smaller safer venues for students to be open and honest about how they’re really doing.
Additional support for front-line staff and our existing health specialists is also needed to ensure we can act on any issues once they are identified. If there are opportunities to create both in person supports and companion digital options where students and parents can interact in a more familiar way such as texting, we should explore those also. Parents have a very significant role also, so providing resources and guidance for them to help identify potential challenges and streamline the process to find support will go a long way toward reaching everyone in need.
What are the infrastructure needs of the board, whether that’s repairs on current school buildings or the construction of new ones? What should the priorities be?
Supporting growth within Guelph will be very important over the next term. Entirely new areas such as Clair-Maltby in south Guelph and the former Dolime Quarry are being planned or will begin to be built out with significant population projections. These areas will require new schools and every opportunity should be made to ensure they are inspiring, engaging and environmentally responsible buildings with generous natural areas around them.
Additionally, many established areas in Guelph and across our region are changing. Some schools that may have seen relatively little growth may begin to change as many new families move in and demographics change. It will be important to closely monitor trends to ensure we have the right resources in the right places at the right times. My preference is to plan as far as we can to be able to expand or alter schools in advance of major population changes and to avoid the proliferation of portable classrooms. When I was in school our rural area was experiencing a period of growth while school funding was being constrained. The result was many years of classes in aging portables which I don’t have particularly fond memories of.
Maintenance and improvement of school ventilation systems, air purification and air conditioning should also continue to be prioritized. Many projects have been completed during the pandemic, but we should continue to focus on this even after we move back into more normal times so we’re fully prepared for any future resurgences.
School safety is a top of mind for students, parents and educators alike, so keeping in mind the mixed feelings around policing provoked by the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, what are the best ways to make our schools a welcoming, inclusive and safe environment?
Overall, I believe that the UGDSB has robust and well thought out policies and programs in place to support safe and inclusive schools. Of course, no plans are ever perfect and it is critical to continuously evaluate and update those plans with extensive consultation from all communities affected, including with police.
The UGDSB created a committee and undertook an extensive review of policing in our schools following the events of May 2020 and a report with specific actions was approved last year regarding that. The report is very thorough and well researched with significant input from across many communities and I believe it found the right balance for moving forward.
Many school boards have been evaluating education materials, including those available through the school libraries, through lenses of inclusivity and appropriateness. Do you support these efforts? Why or why not?
I very much appreciate and support the desire to create safe and inclusive spaces in our schools and never want any materials to cause harm or trauma to any individual or community. I understand that the UGDSB has recently undertaken a review of their collections to remove offensive materials with input from a diverse committee and that regular reviews will be ongoing.
I also believe it is important to regularly evaluate our criteria and ensure we’re never making reactive or overly restrictive decisions without having open conversations first. While removing materials might be the best decision in some cases, in others there may be opportunities to provide age appropriate historical context and enable conversations and learning opportunities instead. I believe the UGDSB has achieved a reasonable balance here to date. I will always strive to maintain that balance and ensure we have open conversations and never slip into an overly restrictive and reactive place.
Philosophy corner! What is the point of schools? Is the goal to give every student the same baseline of knowledge, or are we supposed to be training young people for the jobs of tomorrow? Can we balance giving students both a well-rounded education and job training, and how?
First and foremost, schools should be giving every student a well-rounded education with the goal of the same baseline of knowledge for everyone. I don’t believe we should specifically focus on job training in the K-12 system as that can be limiting. Most students don’t fully know who they will be as a person, let alone what job they may hold when they grow up. I believe we should encourage creativity and exploration while providing real examples of how the world works and what their roles could be in shaping it, but not to focus specifically on grooming them for any specific jobs at this point in their lives.
Teachers and education workers will be starting negotiations with the Ministry of Education for a new contract. What’s your advice to the Minister of Education, and what’s your advice to the representatives from the teachers’ unions?
As someone new to the Trustee role, I don’t have in depth specific knowledge of the current negotiations. I might even defer this question if I were a sitting Trustee to try and remain impartial. However, given my unique position, I will try my best to strike a balance here.
My advice to the Minister of Education would be to do everything possible to increase salaries for many teachers beyond the typical ~1% given the extreme challenges and increased stresses during the pandemic and the historic inflation we’re currently seeing. New teachers in particular need additional support to ensure careers in education remain desirable and, quite frankly, viable in the current climate. During the pandemic, we saw challenges with transitioning between in class and remote learning. Significant time is needed to prepare and adjust instruction methods between both modes and at points educators were given just a day or so notice. Our educators need to have sufficient support systems in place to be able to lesson plan and effectively shift between modes during future disruptions, pandemic or otherwise.
My advice to representatives of teachers’ unions, is to try and balance the conversation between the needs of both new and more experienced teachers. Critics are quick to pounce on any suggestion that teachers don’t earn enough by dragging out the relatively higher salary stats of those who have been teaching for more than 10 years, or recycling the dubious “you get the summers off” argument as rationale for justifying lower pay. Focusing on the incredible work, the regular training, the long hours of preparation, and the newer challenges of being on the front lines of students’ mental health and wellbeing needs all help to demonstrate the immense value teachers bring each and every day.
Finish this sentence: I would be very disappointed if we got the end of this election without debating..?
… At all! Up until very recently, I was concerned that there would be fewer opportunities to debate and engage with the community given the limited number of candidates running. In Wards 1 and 5, I was beginning to wonder if Trustee MacNeil and I might be representing our wards by default! While I’m glad to have more than 2 candidates running now, at present there are fewer than half the number of candidates compared to 2018. Part of what I would like to accomplish during the campaign, and over the next 4 years if I am successful, is to engage with the community and spread the word about what Trustees do and the important role they play.
Where can people learn more about you, and your campaign?
My website is the best place to get information about me: vote.paulnichols.ca.