For Curtis Bulatovich, growing up in Ottawa’s public school system was far from an idyllic experience.
The son of a lesbian mother, Bulatovich came out at the age of eight and describes a supportive home life but a difficult time at school. “Personally as an openly gay male, my experience in our education system was profoundly deplorable. And that’s an understatement,” he says, recalling how he was told by teachers to lower his naturally high voice to fit in better and appear more masculine.
“My experience in the education system, as well as what needs to be changed in our education system, really motivated me towards running,” he says. In recent years, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) has been making progressive changes, including adopting a strict anti-bullying mandate that requires all public schools to maintain bullying prevention and intervention plans, and teachers and school board members marching in the Capital Pride parade.
“The last four years, the board has been under progressive, progressive leadership. And they’ve done a great job,” Bulatovich says. “But here’s the issue: a lot of the progressive trustees are resigning, and we don’t know who’s going to fill those seats.” Now 21, Bulatovich is running in Zone 7, which includes the wards of Gloucester-South Nepean, Gloucester-Southgate and Osgoode. The ward is currently represented by incumbent trustee Mark Fisher, who Bulatovich describes as conservative.
While the zone is largely rural, Bulatovich says he’s seen a shift among its residents to more progressive politics and values — particularly on the campaign trail, where he says he’s met more queer families than he expected to. He says there is a need not just for students, but also parents to be educated on LGBT issues, as more queer families are entering the school system, and for parents to be encouraged to accept their children.
In addition to advocating for LGBT families, teachers and students, Bulatovich is also supportive of students with special needs, having been a special-needs student himself. “I understand the complex issue this is, and I understand the programs that work and the programs that really don’t from personal experience and from professional experience,” he says. “I did receive some special education support, but it really was not enough.”
Bulatovich says that the incidence of suicide is high among special-needs students, an area that overlaps with LGBT students. “The root of the issue here is there’s not enough mental-health support for young people . . . I really think that we need to offer very comprehensive counselling services in our schools and empowerment opportunities to all young people who are marginalized.” Bulatovich says he’d also like to see an increase in the number of education assistants available to students in integration programs.
Of course, a perennial issue for almost all school boards is that of funding; a lack of funds is often the barrier between students and the special programs and support they need. Bulatovich says one way the school board could secure more funding is to build smaller schools and liquidate some of the land it owns. “It kills two birds with one stone,” he says. “We get a nice new school, and we get actually more money that we can put toward programming of this nature.”
As he heads toward the election, Bulatovich says he also wants to focus on poverty and school overcrowding and look at updating facilities and transportation. With a riding that includes both rural and more urban areas and a mix of conservative and progressive families, he has his work cut out for him. “I have 110,000 constituents,” he says. “It’s huge.”