CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE – Martha MacNeil for Ward 1/5 Upper Grand District School Board Trustee

“Whether it is assisting families, learning from staff, enjoying performances at schools, making decisions with my colleagues, or any other of the varied aspects of our role, I relish them all and am grateful for the chance to help make a difference in the world.”

Why are you running to become a trustee?

I am passionate about education and creating change! I have two children who attend school in the Upper Grand and I am deeply committed to making a better world for them and all students.

Of utmost importance is, of course, working to rebuild our system after the tremendous impact the pandemic has had. Rebuilding relationships and regaining trust is paramount. Addressing the learning gaps, increased need for mental health supports, and inequities that have been exposed by the pandemic will be key priorities.

Addressing the funding challenges that are being experienced by all aspects of the education system in Ontario is another top priority. Without proper investments from the government that keep up with the current economic situation it makes it very difficult for school boards to continue to provide the high-quality learning and working environments that we are known for.

And, of course, I do genuinely enjoy the role, despite the challenges and hard work. We have an incredible education community filled with amazing staff, students, and their families. We are the envy of our colleagues across the province and I am very proud to be associated with that. Whether it is assisting families, learning from staff, enjoying performances at schools, making decisions with my colleagues, or any other of the varied aspects of our role, I relish them all and am grateful for the chance to help make a difference in the world.

What is the role of school board trustee as you understand it?

The role of school board trustee has many layers and aspects. Formally, as detailed in the Education Act, trustees are responsible for setting strategic directions, developing policy, and approval of the budget, among other things. Informally, trustees play many roles within the system. We act as liaisons between our communities, schools, committees, families, students, etc. and the Board. We do committee work to help guide the implementation of our strategic directions and develop policy. We approve decisions on a wide range of matters. We attend school events and graduations.

Essentially, we act as ambassadors for our school board and are the public face of the UGDSB. We are ultimately held accountable for the success of our system. The role of the trustee is complex and varied and is one that is extremely rewarding to those who take it on. While the monetary compensation is minimal compared to the work done, the true reward lies in the satisfaction of contributing to something that has the potential to have lifelong positive impact on all those we serve.

Tell us a bit about your background and experience, and how that will inform the way you work as a trustee?

In my life before my kids came along, I was a Registered Veterinary Technician working in veterinary hospitals in the GTA. While I am no longer in the field, I maintain my credentials which involves mandatory continuing education each year. It might seem like this is unrelated to my role as a trustee but in actuality I have learned many skills that I have used extensively – time management and crisis management both being high on that list. And despite the misconception that vet medicine is all about playing with puppies and kittens, in actuality, a significant portion of the job involves connecting with people – your colleagues, clients, sales reps, specialty practices, etc. I was able to develop great people and problem-solving skills that aid me in my interactions with all those that I encounter in my role as trustee.

In between my time as an RVT and a trustee, I was a stay at home parent to my two boys. When they were in elementary school I eagerly signed up for volunteering positions in their classrooms and at their schools. This eventually led to me joining School Council and becoming the co-chair for 3 years as well as the chair of the UGDSB’s Board-wide Parent Involvement Committee for 2 years. My time as school council co-chair and PIC chair was transformative in how I viewed education and the system and how we can work to make it the best it can be.

In this time I developed many of my ideas and perspectives that continue to inform the work I do today as a trustee. I also developed many strong relationships within the system and beyond that have helped me keep an open mind and heart and remain focused on the goal of an education system that is welcoming to all and based on the fundamental concept of success and well-being for every member of our community. The gifts of learning that were provided by this time are too numerous to name them all but you will see more evidence of them below and in my other responses.

On my website at marthamacneil.ca I have listed the numerous committees and learning opportunities I have been part of. I have endeavoured to gain a wide and varied range of experience in all aspects of our board and provincially. I am a person who is constantly interested in learning new things and developing deeper understanding of issues that are important to others. I use what I have learnt in my time on the various committees to inform the work that I do as a trustee and to expand my world view.

Additionally, as a parent in our system and as a former school council co-chair who led their school through a boundary review, I made a promise to myself when I became a trustee to never forget what it was like to be on the other side. Whenever I speak to families, or we are discussing issues at the Board table, or I am needing to make decisions, I always work hard to remember what it was like before I was a trustee.

To remember a time before I was “on the inside”, and I do my absolute best to view everything from that perspective. This gives me greater depth of understanding and compassion. I believe that, in the course of our work, when things seem routine, it is vitally important for us to remember that for the families that are coming to us with concerns or who are asking for help, this is anything but routine. They need us to see the issue through their eyes and understand their point of view. This has always been a guiding principle for me and has served me well in my time as a trustee.

What do you think was the most consequential decision made by the board during the 2018-2022 term?

This is a tricky one to answer as there were many decisions made that had direct impact on students, staff, and their families during the 2018-2022 term. It also depends on whose perspective you are looking at it from. Something that may have had a huge impact in one area of our jurisdiction may have had no impact elsewhere in our district. Certainly some big decisions were focused on the pandemic, such as masking, and there were others, in response to societal concerns, such as the work of the Police Presence in Schools Task Force. And, of course, there are always decisions made at budget time that have lasting impact.

But, honestly, if I wanted to get high level and philosophical about this question, I would say that the most consequential decision made by the Board during this past term was our hiring of a new director, Peter Sovran, in 2021, after 26 years with the late Dr. Martha Rogers at the helm. The director of education is the only direct report to the Board of Trustees and they are ultimately responsible for implementing and operationalizing all of the policies and strategic directions of the Board. Choosing a new director was an enormous responsibility as the person in that role interprets the will of the Board and sets the tone and direction for the entire system.

In addition, given the significantly long tenure of Dr. Rogers, the new director would inevitably bring change, no matter who they were, and this would eventually impact all aspects of the UGDSB. In my opinion, while the hiring of the new director may not have had any immediate direct impact on students or their families, it is most definitely the most consequential decision made by the Board in the 2018-2022 term and will continue to be consequential well beyond this term and even the next.

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?

As stated, the pandemic is not over and this is not the time to sit back and relax. We need to continue to be alert to future phases and we need to maintain our strong focus on protective measures in our schools and buildings. While the government has removed almost all mandates and removed our ability to enact mandates on our own, we can still strive to provide the best possible protection that is available to us. As trustees we must be diligent in our oversight role and in our support of our staff in the work they do. We must be strong in our encouragement of staff, students, and their families to continue to use protective measures and provide, where possible, any additional protective measures that we are able to.

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?

As a trustee our role is that of governance and oversight. We set the policies and strategic directions for the system to follow. As a Board we should ensure that we have strong policies and directions in place that address the education gaps and then it is very important that we regularly follow up and readjust our plans if they are not working to resolve the issues students are having.

As trustees, our strategic directions come through our newly-approved Multi-Year Plan (MYP) that serves as a powerful tool for accountability. We are required, by the Education Act, to regularly develop an MYP which functions as our blueprint and instructions to the system on how to implement our vision. The director and staff are responsible for turning that vision into action. The Board of Trustees use the MYP to measure the success of the actions that are taken and provide guidance if we feel the goals are not being met. Using this tool is one important way that we will ensure that no student falls through any learning gaps. Trustees are regularly provided with reports and presentations from the director and staff to update us on the progress of the actions.

In addition, and on a personal note, now that schools are once again open for visitors, I am looking forward to returning to my regular routine of school visits to see first hand how we are addressing the issues and to hear from those on the frontlines how they think it is going and what they think would be good strategies. Reporting back on what we learn in our visits is a vital part of the role trustees play in being the link between our school communities and the Board.

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?

One of the few things the pandemic has done a great job of is spotlighting and amplifying the glaring need for better, more widely available resources and assistance for students experiencing mental health challenges. Amazing work is being done within our system but without vastly increased funding, only so much can be accomplished. As trustees, our role will be to continue to advocate as a Board and also through the Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) for funding levels that can actually make a difference. Within our system we can support the innovative work that is being done and encourage the implementation of programs across our jurisdiction to ensure equitable access for all.

Two of the pillars of our newly-approved Multi-Year Plan are: Champion Health and Wellbeing and Ensure Equity of Access and Outcomes. These were chosen by the trustees to ensure that all work we do is grounded in the desire to create better outcomes for all students of all ages. With these pillars in mind, our work to support the mental health needs of students will be front and centre, and will build on the incredible work that has already been done.

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?

One of the biggest infrastructure priorities for the UGDSB is the construction of the new south Guelph high school. This has been a long term project that addresses a significant need in our city. The construction of the new high school will balance the numbers of students at our high schools as well as decreasing the need for busing.

In addition, the board continuously monitors the need for new builds or renovations at elementary schools and high schools across the district to be able to be responsive to population changes.

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?

Making our schools welcoming, inclusive, and safe environments has been a top priority for me since long before I was a trustee. During my time as the co-chair of the school council at my kids’ school and as the chair of the UGDSB’s Parent Involvement Committee, creating an educational community where everyone felt cared for and that they belonged was what always motivated me. I was continually inspired by the students, their families, the teachers, and staff and did my best for them while working alongside the school and board staff.

As a trustee I have continued to work to build community and support the efforts of the schools. Communication and relationship building are key. Inviting folks in to participate and to have voice in decisions that shape their student’s school experience is empowering. I would never profess to have all the answers on this, and so reaching out to others and seeking diverse opinions and ideas are very important ways to create welcoming, inclusive, and safe learning and working environments.

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?

Absolutely! Any system, not just educational ones, should continually monitor and evaluate materials and practices to ensure that not only are they modern and accurate, but that they don’t cause harm either intentionally or otherwise. It is also important for materials and practices to reflect those they seek to teach. Our world is not monolithic and neither should our resources be. We all have much to learn from those around us.

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?

I love philosophical questions! High quality public education is the cornerstone of every successful society. Without public education, those who have access to learning is very narrow and this leads to a vast imbalance in power as well as a cavernous gap between the haves and the have nots.

In my opinion, with my philosopher’s hat on, the ultimate goal of school is to instill a love of learning in all students that spans their lifetime. Everything else flows from there. Of course, providing baseline knowledge is critical and training young people for jobs is important, but neither of them look the same for all students. Students are unique, every single one of them, and the education they require is equally unique. If we have an education system with a narrow focus on a single cookie-cutter goal, some students will be successful for sure, but not all.

When a student has a love of learning, the doors of possibility swing wide open for them. Their education may take many forms but it will be rooted in the quest for knowledge. And when they love learning, and are provided the supports that work best for them, they will achieve both a well-rounded education and job training.

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?

My advice to the Minister, the Ontario Public School Boards Association, and all unions and federations representing workers in education is to remember that our ultimate end goal is the same – high quality, world class public education that is available to all and where everyone feels a sense of belonging and that they matter. I would also remind the Minister that bargaining in the media is unfair and not helpful. And for sure I would hope that all parties would recognize the incredible effort that was put forth by all in our system during the pandemic and compensate appropriately for that. If we want to maintain an education system that is quite literally one of the best in the world, we need to invest in it and in its people.

Finish this sentence: I would be very disappointed if we got the end of this election without debating…?

I struggle with the word debate as I find it conjures up conflict and divisiveness. I’m far more interested in participating in conversations with the other candidates to get to know them as potential fellow trustees and for the community to get to know us and to start to build relationships. One of the unique and cool things (in my opinion) about municipal politics, and especially school board politics, is the lack of political parties and platforms.

And, in Guelph, because we elect two candidates in each area (except for Ward 6/Puslinch for trustees), the person who is your opponent on Election Day may very well be sitting next to you as your ward mate when the term starts. We will need to work together to come to agreement on a wide range of issues and I would love to start from a place of mutual respect and understanding rather than conflict.

Where can people learn more about you, and your campaign?

More information about me can be found at: marthamacneil.ca or by emailing me at: votemarthamacneil [at] gmail.com. My Twitter account: @MacNeil4Trustee is mostly focused on my work as a trustee, not on my campaign, but folks are definitely welcome to check it out!

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