School board voting blues

H.G. Watson

There’s no reason nuns can’t vote, but that’s the situation one group of sisters found themselves in during Waterloo’s last municipal election.

“When they went to vote in the election, they were told they couldn’t vote for the Catholic school board candidates because they were considered public school supporters,” explained Wayne Buchholtz, the chair of the Waterloo Catholic District School Board.

The nuns were just one group of many that found themselves the subject of a strange part of Ontario election law that makes it difficult for supporters of alternative school boards to run for or vote in school board elections.

Unlike voting for candidates for city council or regional council, where you simply need to be a Canadian citizen who lives in the district, to vote for school board trustees you have to be a school supporter — which means you have to declare yourself as wanting to vote for that school board. Up until 1997, school support also had an impact on where your taxes go. But a change in law now means that all taxes meant for school boards are distributed on a per-pupil basis.*

However, the rule still stands in regard to voting. The onus, therefore, is on the homeowners and renters to change their affiliation if they want to vote — or run — in an election.

“If they have children in the school, there is no problem,” said Buchholtz. Parents can fill forms out to switch their support to the school board of their choosing when they sign their children up for school.

But as Waterloo Region’s demographics change, it becomes more challenging for the Catholic district school board, as well as other school boards, to ensure that everyone who is meant to be identified as a school supporter is.

“The issue is that a majority of our rate payers no longer have kids in school,” continued Buchholtz. “They’re older and if they change their residences they suddenly find themselves a public school supporter.”

It’s also an issue for renters. Unless their landlord is already a Catholic school board supporter, renters again are likely supporting the English public school board by default. The result is that many people don’t find out they aren’t supporting the right school board until the day they show up to vote.

“It is a big issue that the Catholic school system has tried to change quite a few time,” said Anthony Piscitelli, the Waterloo Catholic District School Board trustee representing Kitchener/Wilmont. “I know a lot of people don’t realize it.”

As the population swells in Waterloo Region, this will become more important for the school boards. Between the 2006 and 2011 census, there were over 10,000 new households in the region and over 1,000 new renters.

In theory, switching school board support should be simple. But in practice, it can be a complicated if you don’t know the right channels to go through.

In all cases, the homeowner or renter has to go Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) and designate the school board that they want to support. It’s worth noting that when the CCE went to the Kitchener city clerk’s office to find out how renters could change their school board support, it took them a business day to find the answer. For a person without the time, or patience, of a media outlet asking for the information, it could be a barrier to even starting the process.

But there is a process. MPAC has created a variety of forms to fill out, including one for renters and for people who may co-own a home with someone who supports another school board, which can be filled out in order for someone to designate support to a new school board.

However, the Catholic school board has been advocating for the simplification of this process for some time. They want a check box added to any new housing purchase agreement that would allow the homeowner to indicate what school board they want to support. “It’s a simple change that politicians don’t want to seem to [do],” said Buchholtz.

Part of the problem is that this issue is a multi-ministry one, involving both of Ontario’s Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. At press time, officials from the Ministry of Education were not able to comment, but were working on pulling together information from all the ministries involved.

But as the upcoming election looms, Buchholtz believes that there will still be problems.

“It’s a ludicrous situation,” he said. “But its something that presently exists, so you run into that problem. You’ll probably find in this election the same thing will happen.”

*EDITOR’s NOTE: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that property taxes still also had to be designated to a homeowner’s preferred school board. This article has been updated to better reflect the facts.