The Waterloo Regional District Schoolboard has recently been making news: this summer, the school board was the victim of cyber-crime with tens of thousands of past students’ and current and past employees’ data accessed, the board sent a letter to the provincial minister of education asking to pause the EQAO standardized testing, and an incident in January spurred an ongoing defamation lawsuit with a former long-term teacher, Carolyn Burjoski.
Amidst all of this, elections for school board trustees are underway. In total, 39 people are running for 11 open seats. Locally, Fred Meissner, Zachary Smith, Jennifer Burkholder and Gerhard Ens are running for the Woolwich and Wellesley trustee seat. Another candidate, Mark Fraser, was running this year, but passed away unexpectedly last month.
On Friday October 7, the Observer interviewed the candidates for the Woolwich-Wellesley trustee seat for the Waterloo Region District Schoolboard. Here are the transcriptions of the full answers to the main interview questions:
Q: What motivated you to run for trustee?
A: Well, I love teaching. I thought it was a very fulfilling career. I especially liked working in special education where I learned how to help kids manage, who had special challenges, unique challenges. And I found myself passionate about education even after I’ve retired. And so, because I think education is really the tool needed by kids for the ever-changing demands of this society, I’d like to be part of the process that implements policies that create an effective education system. I mean, I worked for the board for 27 years, and now I have the opportunity possibly to work with the board to develop something that I think is important.
Q: What are the main issues facing the board right now?
A: Well, I really think the main issue is we need to continue to create some inclusivity, accessibility and safety in the classrooms. Because if it occurs in the classroom, it’s going to occur in the school, in the community and outlying places like that. I do think that inclusivity is really important for all students. Once students have that foundation where they feel comfortable, then they have the opportunity to learn, I mean, if they’re in a safe environment. That’s one of the main ones. I do think we do need to continue to connect and collaborate with parents and guardians and all of the specialized individuals in our community who have a vested interest in developing education. I think education is really a collaborative effort. It’s not a one person show.
Q: How will you approach the gap between conservative-minded and progressive-minded people on the board?
A: Well, I think the people who are running for trustee really do need to look at what is the exact role of the trustee? And that role is to bring your own experience and your judgment to make decisions that are in the best interest of public education. I watched the conference made online offered by the Ontario Public School Board Association. And there was a speaker there who summed it up that the trustees, really their sole role is to be an advocate for children, all children, as far as I’m concerned.
So I think what we need to do is continue to be a voice for the marginalized, the racialized and people who face particular challenges because how we treat those people is really a reflection on how we treat everybody. That the inclusivity the voice for inclusivity needs to be continually voiced. It’s too bad that it has to be, but I do think it has to be done. I think people who are running for the role of trustee don’t realize that curriculum comes from ministry, and the policies that need to be made to implement that curriculum is made at the board level, and that’s a collaborative effort. Things might need to be changed, but that’s where you work together as a group to see what needs to be changed and how things ought to be delivered.
Q: How will you work with people who may not agree with you?
A: That’s a very good question. And given my experience as a teacher over the years, I have had parents who weren’t necessarily happy with what was going on in the classroom. And I think the first thing we need to do is, is listen. We need to listen to what the actual challenge is, or the difficulty is, or whatever the issue is, that the person might have. I think we need to listen to that. I think we need to be able to say I hear what you’re saying. I do think we need to have the foundation of what we believe in to say, this is what the board’s mandate is, put out there by the Ministry of Education. And our job is to fulfill that mandate, in a way that includes all children. It’s not easy. It’s not an easy thing to do.
Q: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
A: Well, I think you’ve asked me why I’m running. I think you’ve asked me about my past. I’ve told you about the role of trustee. I do think the strategic plan that the board is trying to put in place and that’s mandated again by the ministry, is a consultation process that started with surveying over 10,000 people. 5000 of those were students. And I think the board has heard, and I’m looking forward to finding out more about this, the board has heard what needs to be done in order for us to progress. And that’s with students, staff, families and community members. I find that exciting. I do think that it’s a foundation from which we can say, how do we continue now to develop our education system?
Q: Why should people vote for you?
A: Why should people vote for me? Because I have the most experience, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve had the experience in the classroom. I’ve worked with the board. I’ve been, you know, a teacher rep for the Union. I’ve coached. I’ve done all kinds of things with kids. I think I can bring that knowledge, that experience to the board, to help them develop what it is they want to have for policies.
Q: Why did you decide to run?
A: I’ve lived in Waterloo Region for the vast majority of my life. And for the past several years, I’ve been concerned with the direction that the school board and the school system is taking. So, specifically with their introduction and promotion of various sexual and gender ideologies and critical race theory, or more commonly known as anti-racism. Those things being introduced into the schools. Both, I’d say, informally, with teachers pushing them in different clubs and such, but also formally in terms of affecting curriculum and actual education and the materials that are available in the schools.
And then that kind of was exacerbated earlier this year, when Carolyn Burjoski was kicked out of her delegation meeting in a school board general meeting, when she tried to expose some of the books that are available to students in her school. These were books with pornographic material and very concerning themes that were confusing children about their gender and stuff like that. So she was kicked out.
And then Mike Ramsay, tried to bring attention to that and to what’s going on in schools, re: CRT, critical race theory and stuff like that. He was removed from the meetings over the summer until I believe, the end of September. And then Cindy Watts into the shutdown, she put forward a motion to look into how these different ideologies were present and affecting the education system and the board. And so all of this stuff, I mean, I knew that they were in there, from parents, from students, just from the news. And then when the board reacted that way, I was like, well, I think that there needs to be a change. I think that Average Joe’s, men with conviction, in my case men with faith in the Lord and that there is an objective truth and an objective morality that all people must obey. And that is good for all people to obey, need to run and try to change the direction that the school is going in. And, my primary motivation, in all that is to protect the children.
Q: What are the main issues faced by the board?
A: Yeah, like those [mentioned in previous answer], and then the sexual and gender ideology, so transgenderism, the alphabet– the acronym being taught to students, really, at any age, but certainly young students. And then also the actions of the board. So board transparency, like, the school board is supposed to be there to serve parents, and to represent parents. Each trustee is to represent the parents in their area. That doesn’t appear to be happening, they appear to view themselves, at least most of them, as kind of like the tyrants or the authoritarian rulers over the school system, and parents have to answer to them. That’s not how the board is supposed to operate. And in doing so, they’re also undermining parental authority. So I believe that parents, under God, have absolute authority over their kids and need to make those decisions. Children are not autonomous. And so I want to champion that as well. Parental authority in the children’s education and whole lives.
Q: How will you address the gap between progressive-minded and conservative-minded people on the board? How will you work with those who may not agree with you?
A: Well, I think we can work civilly together. I would like to work civilly. Let’s put it that way. I’m not a confrontational person. I’m not desiring to get in here and started throwing punches, metaphorically, everywhere. But, my primary accountability is to the Lord, not to the board. And under God, then my accountability is to parents, okay. And so, if I need, in order to do what is right, if I need to butt heads with other board members, and I’m willing to do that, if we can work together, that would be lovely. I don’t know if that will happen. But like I said, my primary accountability is to the Lord and to parents, not to my fellow board members, and I will do what’s right for the kids, regardless of what they think.
Q: Can you tell me about your background? What makes you qualified to run for this position?
A: Yeah, so I’m sure you’ve gathered, I’m Christian. I attend Trinity Bible Chapel. And we’ve, the whole church, really, but certainly a core of us have followed what’s been going on in the public system for a while. I believe that the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of lords, that all authority in heaven on earth has been given to him. And so everybody on Earth needs to submit to that authority. It’s not a submission that will bring harm. Because God has created all things. If we live according to His will, it will bring it about the best. We can have peace, prosperity, rightness with God. Obviously not perfect, nobody’s perfect except for God. And so because of all these things, the school board also needs to bend the knee to Christ. And so my motivation is to my background, I guess you could say, is kind of built on that. Because Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we as Christians need to actually apply that in all areas of our lives. And for the goodness of our neighbor, Christ commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. And to truly love my neighbor, I need to show him a better way and preach a gospel that’s a better way to him. And so that’s, that’s kind of my motivation. I want to bring that influence into the board as best as I can.
Q: What kind of leadership experience do you have to take on this position?
A: A lot of leadership in the church. Outside of it to a degree too, I mean, a lot of my time that I have is committed to serving in the church at Trinity Bible Chapel, that is. I’m a youth leader, I lead our street evangelism team, ushering in the service sometimes. So leading the ushers in the service. Those are the main areas of leadership. In the past, this hasn’t happened for, four years, at least. I helped coach water polo, I grew up playing that. So I helped coach that. That’s actually probably my leadership. I’d have to really wrack my brain, but what I can remember that’s recent-ish, and outside the church. And then within youth, for example, I’ve organized and led a youth retreat. And then of course, the ministries I mentioned, that’s a weekly commitment.
Q: Why should people vote for you?
A: I think people need to see where the school board and the school system is actually going. Many parents are ignorant to what’s been going on, the stuff that their kids are being exposed to in the schools. So I am dedicated and I believe I have the conviction and the foundation to fall back on to actually stand up against these wicked ideologies.
I’m just, I’m a family man. And I’m nothing special. I’m not an accomplished politician. I’m not a professional really in any usage of the word, I’m an Average Joe that wants to stand up for what’s right. I want to protect children, just as Christ loved the children. And like I said, I know I have the conviction, the biblical conviction that cannot be destroyed, cannot be compromised on. So, I’m not going to compromise my own convictions or my own beliefs, compromise my decisions on the board. And that will give me a very, very, I believe, strong hand in pursuing these goals. And so I think people should vote for me, because if they want to see these things stopped — Oh, have I mentioned this before? I’m very sorry, I don’t think I did: I’m very concerned with the academic degradation within the system, which I believe is very tightly tied to these ideologies being pushed. But there’s other causes as well. And so I want to try to bring that back up as well, reforming how the children are taught.
Q: When you say academic degradation, can you point to how you know there’s academic degradation?
A: Sure. I know that EQAO test scores were dropping even before COVID. And I believe they did the tests this past spring for the first time since 2020. And predictively, the scores were horrendous. So that’s the standardized testing approach. And then a lot of anecdotal evidence, I’m connected with through family and friends and church, quite a few business owners, even some professors, and what they’re seeing from kids who are fresh out of high school, whether they be entering a job, or going into higher education, is that they lack the pretty basic, hard and soft skills. So, hard skills, like literacy, or soft skills like teamwork, being on time, commitment to a job well done, integrity, just stuff like that. [Things] the school system does not expect. It’s the bigotry of low expectations, it doesn’t expect students to achieve anything and so they don’t. They just float through high school. A high school diploma has basically become a ‘Congratulations, you’ve turned 18.’ I know there’s more evidence out there. I’ve looked at EQAO stuff, and then the anecdotal, yeah.
Q: What motivated you to run?
A: I’ve always wanted to do it. You really can’t do it when you’re actually sitting in a position with the school. Where I worked before, I worked in a setting that was a third party to the school. So when you’re sitting in a position where you work with the school board, you cannot run for school board trustee. So I respected that. I worked in an environment that, for the last 10 years directly in the public school board. 10 years prior to that I worked in a school board setting, not necessarily the public, but also the Catholic school. So I knew that I could not run at that time in the Waterloo Region. So I had to wait until I made the decision to either step outside of the school board setting before I could run or look at other places of employment that were not affiliated with the school board. Before I could run. It was always something I wanted to do, I just had to wait for the timing.
Q: Why do you want to be a trustee?
A: Well, I’ve always been an advocate for children’s rights. And I’ve always been someone that really wanted to push for higher education and higher quality education. I also want to see someone, a collaborator with the parents, push for what I felt was really strong values in the quality of education for our children.
Q: What are the main issues facing the board?
A: I really want to get back to the reading, writing, arithmetic. Let’s get back to the basics. I really want to see the leadership program really brought forward in the schools. I think that there’s a lot of things that we really need to get back to, and that is really my drive, and really my focus. And I really think that we need to try to focus back on what the families in our community want. And that is where I want to really focus in and tweak in on and I really believe that I could be the voice to do that.
Q: How will you address the gap between conservative-minded and progressive-minded people?
A: You know, there’s a lot of opinions. I really, really believe that everybody needs to be heard. And I think that we all need to know that there needs to be a safe platform where people need to be able to speak freely, feel that it is safe to bring their concerns, their thoughts and their opinions forward. They need to have that safe place where they can voice their concerns and their thoughts. And there needs to be that safety zone where they can do that and collaborate with other people.
And I think that a really good board of trustees would allow for that to happen, and bring all those pros and cons together and share that. And hopefully, hear all those different opinions before making a decision. And really allow for some collaboration to happen, and concrete decision making, even if they have to take it away for a few days or weeks or months, before making a choice in where they want to take that.
Q: Why should people vote for you?
A: I’ll tell you one thing, I want to be involved with the kids. My children are all older, so it’s not like I’ve glad little kids in school. My youngest one is in grade 11, so she’s almost finished school. My oldest one is out of university and well in the working field, so it’s not like I have my kids in school anymore. They’re all out of school. So I’m going into it with concern about the children’s education, that is community-minded. I’m definitely there because I’ve worked with children from the age of infancy on, and I’m there for the families in our communities. I’m there as an advocate for the families in our community, and I will definitely advocate for anybody. I will speak on behalf of the families in our community, and I will collaborate with anybody. I am definitely there for higher-quality education, and I believe that all our teaching begins with day one with mom and dad at home. And I will take that with me now until forever. And I will listen to you, and I will bring it forward, and I will bring it to every table that I speak with forever or more. I don’t know how to say that clearer.
I really want to be involved, I will go out — if I win this, I will go out and I will be with the schools in our community to push leadership with our children. I’m very competitive. And I really believe that every child no matter what their ability is, they have something to offer our community. The children do, not just our educators, but our children do. And I think that our children have a lot to offer. And I would like to see, even our schools and our parents of our schools, bring the leadership back into our communities. Like, let’s get them involved. For two years, they’ve been sitting on tablets. Let’s get them out there and get them involved in the community again. They’ve got so much to offer, these kids do, and they can bring so much to our community.
Q: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
A: All I can say is, I am so proud that these kids have come back after what we’ve gone through in the last two years with COVID. And they’re just resilient. And I couldn’t be prouder to see the leaps and bounds that they’re making in the schools, and in their marks. We have a long way to go, but I really believe that we’re gonna make it and it’s because of them that we’re seeing the smiles on the faces in so many other areas in our community, like, even our seniors. We were watching these kids, just light people up because these kids are smiling and it puts a smile on all of us. And they’re coming out, and it’s because of the kids. It’s because of the kids. It’s because of their education. Man, I couldn’t be prouder of them. It’s all because of them. So let’s give it back to them. Let’s give them the education they deserve.
Further notes Burkholder sent to The Observer via email:
It has been a great privilege to have worked in a school setting with ECE children for over 25 years and 20 years being in the region of Waterloo. I am a proud wife now working alongside my husband, who is a real estate broker. ( I get to help in marketing and staging) and I am mother of 4, the youngest attending grade 11 in Elmira (and together we have a mother daughter business together called Capsnbuttons making medical caps) while the others have graduated university as a RN, or are attending college, or have just recently married.
With past roles both in front line work and a Team Lead. This has given me many different opportunities, many chances to collaborate with both families and staff and learn about what they want to see their children achieve in the future. Another was working with the WRDSB, this gave me the opportunity to work with the policies and procedures of the childcare and the WRDSB.
I have had the opportunity to see what good quality learning means from infancy through age 12 by implementing curriculum and then working with my own four children far beyond that into university, so I believe that providing the best education is paramount for all children, no matter what their abilities may be. So my passion is for our learning system and making all feel included and finding that balanced environment that will shape the children’s future, education should come naturally. ” Let’s get back to the basics Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. I really do believe that we need to make things readily available for everyone to succeed.
One goal I have is to listen and to hear what the parents of our community want in regards to change and developments in our local schools. I am willing to be that voice for you and your child and those in our community. “Please speak out, I will listen!” Plenty of quality collaboration, for future development and change in our children’s lives vs choosing worldly influences.
The trustees should be a board that represents the children in our community, and promotes whatever it takes to achieve a higher education level available for every single child. I am proud that the children in our community have come back since COVID with enthusiasm but it’s time that we give back to them and listen to their needs. I am willing to listen to the parents and the children alike.
I want to promote student achievement, leadership, well being, growth as well as a positive school atomposhere with goal setting, monitoring, accountability for all staff and students for all levels of abilities.
Finally, I really must say I do believe that the most important aspect in a child’s life is the parents “You are their best teacher” and I am 100% behind the family unit . I support all homes that make learning the happiest, healthiest, strongest, and best start we can give a child.
Q: What motivated you to run?
A: The way that Carolyn Burjoski was treated, I would say primarily [by] Scott Piatkowski. I sort of respect, well, I do respect Carolyn, because she, to me, represents a teacher who’s concerned about our students. She’s obviously a senior teacher, somebody who’s served for a long time. She knows her students and she was kind of concerned at the literature that was being promoted at elementary school libraries, I guess specific book[s] in her case. Anyway, when she presented her concerns, I guess the trustees considered it illegitimate, which just baffles me. People like Carolyn are who I would advocate for, as opposed to punish.
Q: What are the main issues facing the board?
A: It seems to me that the school board is distracting children by taking concepts, adult concepts and trying to impose them on elementary or high school students. And a lot of these would be like social issues like critical race theory. They seem to be promoting confusion in terms of gender. Most children don’t even think about those kinds of things. It’s funny because children, as far as I know, aren’t even aware of racism until they’re told about it and taught it. And to go out of your way to bring that up, I think, is kind of ruining their innocence.
And obviously, pushing sexually explicit things before kids are of an age to understand things is not good. I recall back in the 90s, there was a huge scandal about, in the US, there’s young children that they put into beauty pageants. And, obviously, it probably attracts the wrong type of people. There ended up being a young girl, I think she was six or seven who was murdered. All of this is unnecessary. It’s not something appropriate.
Q: How will you approach the gap between conservative-minded and progressive-minded people? How will you work with people who may not agree with you?
A: I would basically lean on the reason that I’m there, which, if I’m elected– I make it plain to people my stand on these issues — and if I’m elected, I would have to stay with that. Whether that means I’m going to be confrontational? I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t get to that. I hope that the trustees will go back to respecting the constituents. If I don’t get elected, then obviously my constituents don’t hold the same concerns or values that I do.
Q: Anything else you want to talk about?
A: I would say there’s a lot of time wasted on like, climate change, and all these other issues I put forward to you. And from what I can tell, the literacy rate of our children keeps going down, even though the socially progressive agenda is being implemented. Whether that actually works for the kids’ education in a good way, I’m not sure. I would advocate for concentrating on the three R’s. Basically, writing, arithmetic, reading, I mean, history and so on and so forth, and practical things. I guess computers are a big thing nowadays. More-so arm them for having a future and being able to work and [be] productive members of society. What I see this progressive agenda doing is pitting one faction against another, and I actually believe that that isn’t necessary. As an immigrant, like, I came here when I was seven years old. I didn’t know a word of English. I went to a school, there was no English as a second language. I went full tilt into my class. And basically, at that time, maybe this tells you my age, but there was still some residual resentment about the Second World War, and I was considered German. And even at that, I didn’t suffer much discrimination or anything like that. Now, I believe it’s far, far less than it would ever have been back then. And yet, there are proponents within the education industry that are promoting systemic racism, or that systemic racism exists. I myself never felt it and I just don’t understand. It’s almost as though they are creating something out of nothing. It’s worrisome.
Q: Why should people vote for you?
A: In a nutshell, I want to promote teachers who care, and who care about the children and their well-being and their obvious future academically, and I care about the children themselves.
The incident involving Carolyn Burjoski that some of the candidates refer to happened at an online WRDSB trustee meeting in January. Burjoski, a WRDSB teacher at the time, brought forward her concerns about the appropriateness of a number of books available in the schoolboard’s libraries. The books she is concerned about cover topics such as transgenderism, sexuality, gender and sexual activity during childhood. Her delegation was cut short, as the chair was concerned she was violating the human rights code and harming LGBTQIA2S+ children. The video was taken down from YouTube. Burjoski is now suing the school board for defamation.