Globe and Mail

Calgary school-board vote pits men against women

Antifemale sentiment gained momentum after former board turfed for several embarrassing gaffes

ALANNA MITCHELL
Alberta Bureau
The Globe and Mail
Monday, November 29, 1999

Calgary -- Calgary's election today for public-school trustees has turned into a battle of the sexes reminiscent of decades ago.

Some of the female candidates are being asked at forums and at door-knocking sessions whether they think women are fit to run Canada's third-largest school board with its nearly 100,000 students.

Some of the male candidates are openly campaigning on the platform that the board needs men -- especially professional men -- rather than housewives, if it is to function properly. At forums during the month-long campaign, voters have hung on the words of men, while often giving women short shrift.

The antifemale sentiment is only one subtext to the controversial election, which has also been characterized by sharp splits between the far right and the moderates.

But it runs so deep that more than half the 50 candidates for the seven seats are men. In the past, the field has often been dominated by women. With the polling booths opening first thing this morning throughout the city, men are thought to have a good chance of winning in five of the seven ridings.

Some who monitor education issues in the province say this undertone is so pronounced among voters in this election that it's a handicap to be female.

"It's something like a Father Knows Best issue out there," said Joanne Cuthbertson, a spokeswoman for the grassroots group Support Public Education, Act for Kids (SPEAK). "I think for some people, that's where they're content to sit."

To many voters, this is a legacy from the last board of trustees, all seven of which were women. Alberta's Learning Minister Lyle Oberg dismissed the entire group in August, calling the board dysfunctional after a spate of embarrassing public-relations disasters.

The one that has most tarred the previous board was the "passing-and-tattling" episode in which two trustees passed notes back and forth criticizing hair, outfits and intellect, and two others fetched the shredded notes from the garbage, pasted them back together and presented them to reporters.

This resounding image of pettiness took shape even as the public schools were mired in a severe crisis of underfunding, as enrolment in public schools was falling and as communities throughout the city struggled with demands to save heating and lighting costs by closing off any school classrooms that were not absolutely necessary.

To voters, it felt as if the trustees fiddled while Rome burned. And many have pinned it on gender.

Scott Saville, for one, is adamant that the board needs some male blood. The 57-year-old lawyer is running in the city's south end against Peggy Anderson, one of the dismissed trustees.

"I think we should bring some boys back to the board," he said in an interview yesterday, pointing out that the last board was all women.

"It has just been quite an overwhelming number of women," said Mr. Saville, who was a Calgary public-board trustee from 1968 to 1980 and was president of the Alberta School Boards Association for the final two years of that. "And I've got nothing against them. My mother's one. I'm married to one."

But he said he wants to see business people and professionals at the board table, although he said he has nothing against stay-at-home mothers. And he says voters are telling him they are angry at the last board and want a change.

"To have these girls sending little notes back and forth saying: 'Your makeup is askew,' or whatever," he said. "We deserve a little better. I think a gender balance will assist in that regard."

Sharon Hester, another candidate in the same area, said it hasn't been a disadvantage to be a woman in the race there. Her main opponent is said to be Ms. Anderson, who was dismissed from the board in August and who played a role in the tattling drama.

Mrs. Hester said she believes that voters are simply looking for a qualified trustee. Like others running in this election and watching it from the sidelines, she said the outcome will be momentous.

"I think excellence in public education is at stake," she said. "Public education has to survive."

The fact that little else about the candidates' platforms is straightforward leaves Calgarians confused, said Yvonne Hebert, a professor of education at the University of Calgary. "Voters are going to have a tough time."

Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services