In what may be a record, nine openly gay, lesbian or bisexual candidates are running for school board trusteeships across Ontario in the coming election, including six in Toronto and three incumbents.
The huge number of openly LGBT candidates this year may stem from a renewed focus on LGBT issues at the board, particularly in the wake of the well-publicized homophobic and transphobic comments of Scarborough trustee Sam Sotiropoulos, as well as controversies arising from repeated reports of misspending by trustees.
Residents in Ward 14 (Toronto Centre) will get a repeat of the contest between lesbian incumbent Sheila Ward, who has sat on the board since 1997, and gay challenger Chris Moise, who placed second in 2010.
Moise, who says he uses school grounds regularly, says that he worries about cuts to art and music programs in schools in low-income areas and that he’s concerned about school closures in the neighbourhood.
“Schools are really important parts of the community; they’re the green spaces in our communities,” he says.
This year, Moise thinks he has the edge over Ward, whom he characterizes as “not involved.” He claims support from teachers’ unions and both the ward’s city councillors, Kristyn Wong-Tam and Pam McConnell.
“She hasn’t been around. One of the complaints from our councillors and parents is that she doesn’t return calls,” Moise says of Ward. “I think she’s just been a disappointment and it’s time for a change.”
Ward did not respond to an email, and Xtra was unable to schedule an interview by phone before press time.
Next door in Ward 10 (Trinity-Spadina), queer woman Ybia Anderson is in a nine-way race for the vacant seat left by retiring trustee Chris Bolton. Anderson is hoping to bring her experience working for one of Toronto’s major auditing firms to a school board often wracked with transparency issues.
“In my job, the clear, transparent recording of expenses is critical,” she says. Anderson, who is the mother of a one-year-old, is also concerned about overcrowding and bussing in neighbourhood schools, particularly in the high-growth waterfront area of the ward.
“At the end of my term, [my son] will be entering a public school in my ward, which is great motivation for me to do my best in the ward,” she says.
Further west in Ward 7 (Parkdale–High Park), former Pink Triangle Press employee Jeffrey Freeman hopes to win in a seven-way race with no incumbent. He says he wants to make the board environment more respectful so that trustees can focus on important issues, such as his ward’s $75-million school repair backlog and overcrowding that’s arisen because of all the new developments in the neighbourhood.
He’s also taken a firm stand against a proposed partnership with China’s Confucius Institute, which would provide instructors in the Mandarin language and Chinese history. The move is opposed by members of Parkdale’s large Tibetan community, who accuse the institute of glossing over China’s human rights issues in Tibet and elsewhere.
“The agreement is on hold, but by no means is it dead. The way that it came about was an affront to our core values as a democratic society,” Freeman says.
As a gay man without children, Freeman says he’s faced some homophobic scrutiny from rivals for the trusteeship.
“I sort of received some feedback from some opponents that’s a homophobic comment on my status of not having children,” he says. “I don’t think the vested interest of having a child in the system is something you need to be successful, but even in a very progressive ward, there are elements of conservatism there.”
In addition to the four openly LGBT candidates for school board trustee running in downtown Toronto, another five are seeking office across Ontario.
Jordan Glass, TDSB Ward 5 (York Centre)
Making his first attempt at elected office, Jordan Glass was inspired to run for trustee after struggling to find a place for his autistic six-year-old daughter in the local school system.
“At her home school, there just weren’t the facilities available to meet her sensitivity needs,” he says. “From my perspective, the problem starts at the board, and the teachers aren’t given the tools they need. I would like to create a position to help parents of special education children.”
Openly bisexual and married, Glass says he’s faced no homophobia so far in the campaign and was actually encouraged to run by the parents’ council at his daughter’s school. He calls trustee Sotiropolous’s comments “very disturbing” and says he supports the board’s alternative Pink Triangle Program but laments that “it exists as a symptom of something negative. Ideally, we could move toward a place where we could move past demographically specific schools because we won’t need them.”
Alexander Brown, TSDB Ward 12 (Willowdale)
In his fourth attempt at elected office — he ran in 2010 for the trusteeship and in 2011 and 2014 for the NDP provincially — Brown says he wants to use the position to help streamline services for parents of special needs children and to advocate for a reassessment of the provincial funding formula for school boards.
Brown, an ESL teacher of 22 years, says he’d like the province to bring back the sex-education curriculum that was shelved under the McGuinty government in 2010.
“We’re trying to get inclusion, which I’m very supportive of. All of these issues need to be brought to the fore,” he says.
Paul Marai, Halton Catholic Board, at-large (Oakville)
Running for reelection after a tumultuous term in which his bid to protect gay-straight alliances in Halton Catholic schools created international headlines and, thanks in part to coverage in Xtra, led to passage of Ontario’s Safe Schools Act, 26-year-old Paul Marai says he believes he has the support of the electorate behind his work.
“People think the Catholic community is so socially conservative, but if you look at polls throughout North America, they’re one of the most socially liberal identified groups on the continent. What it comes down to is parents across Ontario just want a safe environment for students,” Marai says.
He says his own surveys show that bullying is typically one of the top concerns of parents. He’s also quick to rhyme off the board’s other accomplishments this term, including providing 3,500 iPads to classrooms, adding 168 full-day kindergarten classrooms and increasing bussing by one-third.
Marai says his family is dedicated to Catholic education in the province, and he’s glad to be able to offer a youth perspective in an arena that typically skews older.
Chris Erl, Hamilton-Wentworth Board Wards 1 & 2
A first-time candidate in a race with no incumbent, Chris Erl says he wants to be a trustee to help prevent school closures with innovative solutions that preserve school spaces and community uses.
“Our population is changing rather rapidly. There’s a lot of gentrification in the core, a changeover in our economy, to a very education-focused economy. Ultimately, the way that our school board has been approaching population dynamics is out of sync,” he says.
Nevertheless, Erl praises the board for being progressive on equity issues and protecting LGBT students.
“Ultimately, I think there are a lot of really great things our board is doing, but those things are often attacked by religious fundamentalists,” he says. “It’s disheartening to see these attacks that they make against high school students and middle school students.”
Matt Reid, Thames Valley Board Wards 2–6 (London)
Although this is his first election, Matt Reid also enjoys being the incumbent, having been appointed to the board after his predecessor won election to Queen’s Park in 2013.
He says one of his priorities in the new term will be championing support for GSAs, equity issues and children with mental health needs.
“While I had a good experience with high school and elementary school, a lot of students didn’t,” Reid says. “If there’s an opportunity for me to make life a little easier for a high school student who’s struggling with their identity, I think that is a wonderful opportunity to make a positive impact on future generations.”
Reid says he hasn’t directly experienced homophobia on the campaign, despite a history of contentious debate on queer issues in a school board that maintains a large rural component.
“I think people like Kathleen Wynne have really broken a lot of barriers,” he says.”I just keep on working hard and we’ll see what happens on Oct 27.”