As engaged Toronto voters go, Ansley Simpson comes out on top. The mother of a 3-year-old girl can debate the nuances of the platforms of the leading mayoral candidates, and has taken time to research the candidates for city councillor in her ward of Parkdale-High Park.
But on a recent windy afternoon, when a candidate for school trustee knocked on her door, Ms. Simpson had the look of a guilty teenager who forgot to do her homework.
"I honestly don't even remember if I have ever voted for a trustee because I doubt I ever knew who the candidates were," she said. "I probably just panicked and picked one."
Ms. Simpson is in good company. The numbers vary among districts but, in the GTA, as many as one in five voters leaves the trustee portion of the ballot empty. And of those who do vote, many do so on a whim, or a whisper of name recognition.
The result is that most of the people who control $4-billion in education funding in this city are elected to the job without much of a contest. One-third of Ontario's school board trustees have none: They are acclaimed.
Though the money comes from the province, trustees have a great deal of discretion to determine how it is spent. The 22 trustees who make up the Toronto District School Board, and 12 who make up the Toronto Catholic District School Board, control the budget and are the ones to decide what programs, buildings and issues are prioritized and which ones get cut each year. They also tackle issues of special programming, school closings, boundary changes, governance and policy.
"Trustees don't seem to generate the same level of interest as the elections for councillor or mayor," said Duncan MacLellan, a professor at Ryerson University's Department of Politics and Public Administration. "It's difficult to say why because education is always high on people's list of priorities."
"It's a bit of a crapshoot," said Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association who is seeking a fourth term on the Durham District School Board.
The lack of voter engagement means name recognition becomes a powerful advantage, making it very difficult to unseat an incumbent trustee. Several members of the TDSB have held their seats long enough to see two or more generations of students graduate through the school system, including Irene Atkinson, who is about to retire after 40 years on the board.
It also makes the vote more susceptible to the input of a vocal minority. Candidates can win a major leg up with the $750 donations the teachers' unions dole out to their preferred candidates, or by winning the support of the most influential parent council members. They often campaign on hyperlocal issues, such as the placement of crossing guards or school boundaries.
Voters are seen as so fickle that being first in alphabetical order and having a name that appears at the top of the ballot is an advantage.
"There's a bit of truth to that," said Prof. MacLellan. "The fallout is that we get incumbents who get re-elected on name recognition only and not necessarily on their performance."
Issues that have nothing to do with education can often decide the election. In Trinity-Spadina (Ward 10), the contest to replace former TDSB chair Chris Bolton, who resigned after a series of scandals, has become centred on a proposed deal to sell a high school sports field to private interests, and candidates' views on the conflict in the Middle East.
A co-ordinated campaign against one candidate, Ausma Malik, has labelled her a terrorist supporter.
The group has become so vocal that Ms. Malik was unable to finish her closing remarks at a trustee candidates debate at Ogden Junior Public School on Wednesday. At least three men shouted over her, calling her a "Jew hater" and "Hezbollah terrorist," intimidating Ms. Malik to the point that she was forced to leave through a back door.
At the Toronto Catholic District School Board, where just a few thousand people vote for trustee in some wards, canvassing the biggest churches is the quickest route to victory. The small turn-out makes it easy for special interest groups to sway elections.
Groups such as the Campaign Life Coalition – and anti-abortion group – recruit and support "God-fearing" candidates
"Are you a fairly competent speaker, professional in how you deal with others, and passionate about protecting parental rights and the innocence of our children?" the group's website asks. "If so, will you consider running for your local public or Catholic school board?"
Another group, Parents as First Educators, has made the Catholic teachers' union participation in Toronto's annual Gay Pride Parade a central issue. (They oppose it.)
At a recent all-candidates debate for the Halton Catholic District School Board, important issues such as infrastructure, funding for special needs students and French immersion programming took a back seat, according to Paul Marai, one of the candidates.
"The questions were about views on abortion and the HPV vaccine," he said.
Marcela Saitua, a Parkdale – High Park (Ward 7) trustee candidate is one of seven candidates vying for Ms. Atkinson's old seat. (Her rivals include the ward's parent council chair, Robin Pilkey, and Linda Torry, a mom and MBA.) She said much of her time canvassing is devoted to explaining the role of a trustee.
This is a shame, she said, because everyone has an interest in public education.
"I knew going in that one of the hardest things going in would be getting people to care," she said.