CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE – Ralf Mesenbrink for Ward 2/3/4 Upper Grand District School Board Trustee

“I have witnessed my daughter and her friends struggle with on-line learning and the effect of greatly reduced opportunities for our youth to engage in social interaction during COVID. This highlighted the value of in-person learning and the role caring adults in the school that supports the learning, well-being and mental health of our youth.”

Why are you running to become a trustee?

I am running so I can continue to serve my community, families, youth and children. I have been involved as a volunteer in the West Village, a priority neighbourhood in the west end, organizing and delivering programs and supports for families. These volunteer efforts include free recreation and skill building programs, summer high school experiential learning, adult education, and supports like food support and community gardens and back to school supply drives.

I have witnessed my daughter and her friends struggle with on-line learning and the effect of greatly reduced opportunities for our youth to engage in social interaction during COVID. This highlighted the value of in-person learning and the role caring adults in the school that supports the learning, well-being and mental health of our youth. I am committed to working to ensure that the local board and our students receive the resources needed to be successful.

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

Trustees provide a lens for policy by engaging parents and other stakeholders and work to connect and reflect the local board priorities and needs. This is a valuable insight as the board reviews and sets direction and policy for staff to implement.

School board trustees develop the Board’s Multi-Year Plan, and approve and monitor staff plans to achieve those objectives.

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

I have had children attend various UGDSB schools, both in regular track and French immersion programs. Our youngest is still in high school. Before retiring, I spent 35 years in public education in various roles. These roles included being responsible for high schools, alternative education programs, adult education and a large Employment Ontario program, giving me an added insight into employers needs and the changing labour market. I have always worked hard to ensure all student pathways are equally valued.

I was elected to the board of CESBA, a provincial organization and am currently the vice-chair of a Neighbourhood group board of directors. I volunteer with new Canadians and equity-seeking groups in a priority neighbourhood and this work keeps me connected to parent conversations outside of school councils.

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

There are two very closely linked decisions that together are the most important made in the last term. These are the board’s development of the Multi-Year Plan and the hiring of Director Peter Sovran. The director, with his staff, is charged with implementing that strategic plan. The Multi-Year Plan sets the board’s direction and priorities for the next four years and is ambitious and forward looking. All decisions during this next term will be steered by this plan.

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?

The collection, sharing and analysis of data such as student and staff absenteeism will be key to monitoring this. Regular communication with Public Health will also be critical. I will advocate for schools staying open safely, but realize that legislation has limited board’s responses to health emergencies. I will advocate for up-to-date information to be shared with parents so they can make informed decisions, and advocate with the Government for safety resources.

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 collection, sharing and analysis of data will be key to understanding these gaps – are there groups being left behind? There must be a balance of in-person learning opportunities with eLearning/remote/virtual opportunities for classes, as well as opportunities to address gaps such as summer programs, in various delivery formats. Having detailed data will help us understand individual student, school and system-wide needs which will then help ensure budget and human resources are allocated to address these gaps.

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?

The resumption of in-person learning and opportunities for social interactions such as bands, clubs and sports has had an immediate effect. We need to continue to build the resiliency of students, staff and parents. We need to work with community partners such as CMHA and other local partners to scaffold supports and ensure a continuity of service to those in need of mental health supports in schools and in the community.

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?

I am not able to comment on the infrastructure needs of individual existing schools. As a parent, I must say that our schools appear to be in very good shape. The board has experts who identify needs and recommend solutions for our existing schools. The construction of the new South End high school will be a priority, now that there is approval from the city to move forward to a site plan. We need to move this project forward as student enrolment pressures continue at several high schools.

I will advocate for improvements that reduce carbon emissions from board operations, while realizing funding for most of these improvements is under provincial control.

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?

As a parent I have completed the school climate survey. This survey helps highlight successes and identify areas of need so we can allocate resources appropriately. One of the most critical things we can do is ensure we have caring adults interacting with students. This becomes much more difficult in an on-line or virtual environment.

While police presence in schools is of concern to many students and families, leading to the decision to end the School Resource Officer program, the reality is that disagreements still occur. I am looking for alternative dispute resolution systems in the UGDSB, teacher and administrator training and the development of an understanding culture.

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 support these efforts. All students should be able to see themselves and their experiences reflected and valued in learning materials and experiences in our schools. Parents should feel comfortable to identify gaps and needs to ensure we have the rich variety of resources required to ensure that all can relate to our 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?

I believe that the role of schools is to inspire a love of learning, to help learners develop into literate, engaged citizens with the skills to learn new things in the future, to question, advocate for themselves and to explore future opportunities while valuing all pathways. Employers have repeatedly told the public that they want literate learners who have ‘soft skills’ such as initiative, respect, and are able to learn, but that the employers themselves will provide training of job-specific skills.

That being said, excellent UGDSB programs such as Ontario Youth Apprenticeship programs, cooperative education, experiential learning and Specialist High Skills Majors allow students to explore potential careers, and if they wish, begin developing those job-specific skills in partnership with local employers.

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?

We need to value public servants and the service they provide. They deserve a reasonable wage, and restrictive legislation should be lifted in order to proceed with bargaining in good faith. Centralized bargaining should be between the employer boards and the employee representatives While I recognize that the government holds the purse strings, the Minister needs to listen to employer boards as to what is required locally to attract, retain and develop quality staff in all roles in the system.

Finish this sentence: I would be very disappointed if we got the end of this election without debating…? equity audit of all UGDSB school board policies and operations. Equity of access and outcome is a key pillar of the boards Multi-Year Plan. I think a full equity audit is required to identify areas where more work needs to be done or policies need to be revised to ensure that all students, staff and parents have that equity of access and opportunity and systemic barriers are removed.

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

Twitter: @RalfMesenbrink

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