Islanders could be casting votes for new Public Schools Branch school board trustees this fall — if government legislation to reinstate elected school boards passes before the session ends this spring.
Education Minister Natalie Jameson tabled legislation to amend the Education Act, which sets the stage for the Public Schools Branch to have elected school board trustees, on April 20. The new regulations would see elections held on the third Friday of October every three years.
"Assuming the bill passes in the legislature we will hit the ground running and certainly promote the elections across the Island and ideally have elections on that date," Jameson said in an interview with CBC News.
The last election of school board trustees for the PSB was in 2008. Schools have been administered by various appointed bodies since the merger of the eastern and western boards in 2012. Those two school boards eventually merged to become the English Language School Board, which was ultimately replaced by the Public Schools Branch.
Premier Dennis King's government promised to reinstate elected school boards back in 2019. Last year, the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning held public consultations with educators and members of the public to develop a model for elected school boards moving forward.
If the legislation passes, Jameson said the plan is to move forward with a hybrid model: eight elected trustees and three who are appointed, including one Mi'kmaq nomination put forward by the Epekwitk Assembly of Councils.
"This was all determined through an extensive public consultation process last year," Jameson said.
"It will be a hybrid model, so we'll be rolling out that information and hoping for good voter turnout in October."
Mail-in ballots only
The plan is to hold school board elections using only mail-in ballots.
In an email to CBC News, officials with Elections P.E.I. said the organization put out a request for proposals to offer online voting in this year's municipal elections but no company could fulfil the guidelines necessary to do so. As a result, online voting will not be available for the upcoming municipal or school board elections.
The budget for a mail-in-ballot election is about $70,000, which Jameson said was the most cost-effective option on the table.
School board elections wouldn't coincide with provincial or municipal elections — Jameson said the department felt it was better to hold separate elections to avoid confusion on the ballot.
"It was determined that a stand-alone school board election was more possible, a better option for Islanders," Jameson said.
The seven proposed election zones for PSB trustees are the same as the current advisory councils. There will be two zones that combine two families of schools — Kensington and Kinkora, as well as Morell and Souris — and Jameson said the Charlottetown zone would have two trustees because it has a larger student population.
According to Elections P.E.I., voting in school board elections will be open to all of the voting population — that's anyone who is a Canadian citizen, at least 18 years of age and has been a resident for at least six months.
In order to vote in school board elections for the Commission scolaire de langue française — which has continued to have elected school boards — a person must be an eligible parent or would be an eligible parent if they had a child.
Voter turnout had been an issue before the former Liberal government got rid of elected boards.
Officials with Elections P.E.I. say voter turnout was less than three pr cent at the now-defunct Eastern School Board between 1996 and 2008. Voter turnout at the former Western School Board was even lower, at less than one per cent.
If the legislation passes, Jameson said, work to raise awareness about the upcoming election would begin right away.
"Efforts will start to ensure that Islanders become aware of the process and individuals who are interested in running will have the materials they need to consider this as an option for them," Jameson said.
"I think it's going to require a real collaborative approach between the department, both school authorities, Elections P.E.I., the Home and School Federation, all partners on board to get the word out and I'm really hopeful we'll see some strong candidates come forward."
The legislation still has to go to second reading, meaning the government's plan hasn't been passed in the legislature yet. Jameson expects the bill to be brought back to the house for debate again this week.