CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE – James Gollinger for Ward 2/3/4 Upper Grand District School Board Trustee

“In the last few years, our schools have gone through a lot of extreme changes, some of which have threatened the standard of education we are providing to our students. As a long time school volunteer, and a current home school Dad to two kids, I want to bring my experience to the board to assist in the work that needs to be done in restoring our education system in Guelph.”

Why are you running to become a trustee?

In the last few years, our schools have gone through a lot of extreme changes, some of which have threatened the standard of education we are providing to our students. As a long time school volunteer, and a current home school Dad to two kids, I want to bring my experience to the board to assist in the work that needs to be done in restoring our education system in Guelph.

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

Our role is to work with staff to ensure that our students have access to the tools they need to reach their best, regardless of their talents, challenges, or goals.

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

I have a very diverse skill set. I’ve worked in tech, trades, and customer service. I’ve worked with community groups to prepare and deliver delegations to City Hall and I’ve volunteered and worked at my local school, in many roles, for many years. I understand how a quality education can apply to different situations and I’m passionate about finding ways to connect individual students with the tools they need for their particular circumstances. I hope to bring a bottom-up perspective to the UGDSB, focusing on proven success and fostering greater collaboration between schools and parents.

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

In June of 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 response, while students, parents, and schools were still struggling to make sense of rapidly changing circumstances and uncertainty over how things would look for the education system in September, the board decided to hold an emergency meeting to address a sociopolitical issue. Sparked by an event in the United States the UGDSB adopted Critical Race Theory (CRT) as the guiding principal to interpret provincial policy.

CRT is an extremely complicated philosophy that redefines many existing terms in ways that are not intuitive or easily explained. Many parents do not understand CRT and are likely not even aware of it’s adoption. CRT also constitutes a moral stance that may create conflict with many of the cultural ideas that exist in Canada, particularly those held by new Canadians who are already in the process of learning about their new country.

I want to ensure that all parents understand CRT, and CRT terminology, and how it can impact the education of their children.

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?

I want to ensure that there are policies and backup plans in place for dealing with emergency school closures that also empower parents to make appropriate decisions that affect the health of their children.

Much of the damage done by the Covid-19 response was due to uncertainty. Often schools were closed with little notice and parents were left unprepared. While I understand that officials only had a few months of warning by March 2020, going forward we need to have a common vision in advance.

I would like to continue the online schooling program as an option for parents, both with respect to dealing with transmissible illness as well as providing more schooling options to fit all students. Parents and teachers can decide on whatever measures they feel appropriate to stay safe in schools and, if not, have the option to participate remotely.

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?

I will work to expand the types of programs available to students, including online and outdoor schooling, as well as bringing a new focus to areas of education that have been sidelined over the past few decades, such as life skills and training for work in trades. Learning can be done in a variety of contexts and we owe it to our students to provide every opportunity we can.

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?

While some aspects of mental health, such as catastrophic events or personal trauma, are beyond the scope of the education system to solve, there are many simple things that we can ingrain in our school culture to improve general mental health.

Healthy eating and physical fitness are both tied to improved mental health, as are social interaction and goal setting. It has also been shown that children are particularly vulnerable to uncertainty and chaos, which have been nearly ubiquitous over the last few years. On top of this, our students are exposed to high levels of sensational, politically charged news stories and the unprecedented phenomenon of social media.

I will work to promote habits in the schools that in turn promote mental health, and work to remove unnecessary conflicts. I think we can also help in terms of education; we can provide historical context for news and psychological context for the effects of online interaction. I will also do my best to ensure that both students and parents know what to expect from our schools now, and in the future, to alleviate undue stress.

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?

As we have seen by the pandemic response, online access and competence in using technology is a necessity in modern life, even in schools down to the earliest grades. I will work to ensure that students and parents have access to the tools and skills they need to access every opportunity.

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?

The rules in our country, province, and schools are quite explicit in condemning discrimination based on immutable characteristics, including race. Our schools are some of the safest and most inclusive in the world, and many people move to Canada for the opportunity to have their children attend.

That said, incidents of discrimination should be taken seriously; no student should feel that they are any less deserving of success due to any aspect of themselves that is beyond their control.

It is extremely dangerous for those in positions of authority, from teachers, to administrators, to board staff, to express political opinions of any kind in their official capacity. By doing so, they marginalize the voices of students who may not share their beliefs. While I support the free exchange of ideas between students in a civil manner, the role of staff must be that of moderation.

Our student population is incredibly diverse and they bring multiple cultural beliefs and practices that are not necessarily compatible to our schools that must serve everyone. We must teach our students how to tolerate the opinions and beliefs of those they may disagree with by modelling such behaviour ourselves while at work.

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?

The main focus in education materials must be their utility in serving the education of students. I don’t believe any passive materials have a greater effect on inclusivity than the people teaching and mentoring the students, and so I don’t see much value in using this lens.

Appropriateness is a very subjective term and can’t realistically be discussed without involving educators to evaluate a material in terms of what it can teach students, and parents to look at the same material from the perspective of the moral values they want to teach their children. While I would dismiss material that is inherently offensive, pornographic, or political out of hand, I think there is a good case to be made for having regular discussions with teachers, staff and parents around the appropriateness of educational materials.

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?

30 years ago I could argue that the job of schools was to train students for the jobs of tomorrow; today it’s almost impossible to predict the skills that will be valuable five years into the future, let alone twenty.

I attained a Bachelors Degree related to STEM because that was what was predicted to be valuable at the time. But, while STEM jobs are indeed important and usually well paid, there simply isn’t enough of them to go around. Even if there were, we would still need people to grow food, interact with customers, and maintain infrastructure (among many other needs), which is why I switched my career to trades. I’m quite happy in this field despite the fact that I was repeatedly told it was a “dead end” when I was younger.

Schools, at the very least, need to provide everyone with the bare minimum of skills required to function in our increasingly complex society. This includes reading, writing, numeracy, and a basic, practical understanding of our laws, government, and the history of our country.

Beyond that, schools should present opportunities for learning. We should, as much as is feasible, allow students to pursue their own paths while we act as facilitators. We should acknowledge the value in learning “on the job” and strengthen partnerships with employers who value what our students can already achieve. We should be prepared to expand our own knowledge, if necessary, to continue to challenge students, or simply provide them resources if they are more self-driven.

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?

I’m not an expert in either contract negotiation or the issues being addressed but, having lost a major chunk of my grade 8 year due to strike action, as well as acknowledging that our system is currently in the process of being rebuilt after unprecedented disruption, I would advise putting the priority on stability.

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

I would be very disappointed if we got the end of this election without debating how we are going recover after the disruptions of the last two years and how we will ensure we are prepared to handle the future.

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

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