Ensuring equity of opportunity for all student trustees

A history unwinding

The position of student trustee is a unique component of Ontario’s education system. The role of the student trustee was first introduced in the early 1990s under the government of former Premier Bob Rae. The Royal Commission on Learning explored ways to revitalize the education system. In its report For the Love of Learning, the Commission recommended that all district school boards have a student representative.  Although this report was the first official government document to propose a mechanism by which students could represent their interests at the board level, the first school board to enact legislation allowing a non-voting student representative was the former Kenora Board of Education in 1989.

In 1997, the government of former Premier Mike Harris introduced Bill 160, The Education Quality Improvement Act. The legislation created the position of a “pupil representative” at the school board level. The Act allowed individual school boards to draft their own policies to allow for flexibility within guidelines. By 1998, every school board had at least one pupil representative.

Under the vision of a dedicated group, student trustees from the English-Public, English-Catholic, French-Public and French-Catholic boards agreed to work together to represent Ontario’s students. At a time of deteriorating relations within the education system, this association stood as a cooperative syndicate that boldly and progressively bridged the gaps of language and religion, while also recognizing the benefits of representing a united student voice. The Ontario Student Trustees’ Association – l’Association des élèves conseillers et conseillères de l’Ontario (OSTA-AECO) convened for the first time in Toronto in 2000.

Throughout the years, the relationship between OSTA-AECO and the Ministry of Education has greatly evolved. Today, OSTA-AECO is honored to represent Ontario’s student voice at consultations on a variety of issues. The association continued to advocate for student rights and stability in education. In 2005, OSTA-AECO released a report entitled The Student Trustee: Today and Tomorrow with recommendations to strengthen the student trustee position, including the right to suggest motions, access board resources, and attend meetings closed to the public. Many of the recommendations were successfully implemented under Premier Dalton McGuinty; notably, the Education Act was amended in 2006 to change “pupil representative” to “student trustee.”

Over the years, OSTA-AECO has advocated on behalf of Ontario’s students across a range of topics including: shifting the focus of teaching on education rather than evaluation, improving bilingual education, producing Catholic school uniforms under ethical and non-exploitative conditions, reducing or eliminating extracurricular activity fees, promoting LGBTQ+ gender expression and inclusivity, as well as other measures to improve the school and student experience across the province. For over sixteen years, OSTA-AECO has been a strong, effective, and positive voice for students. The association continues to advance the student vision today and work towards continuously enhancing Ontario’s world-class education system.

OSTA-AECO today and tomorrow

According to Canada’s Revenue Agency, a non-profit organization (NPO) is “a club, society, or association that’s organized and operated solely for: social welfare, civic improvement, pleasure or recreation, and any other purpose except profit.”[1] OSTA-AECO operates with the dual purpose of offering professional development to student trustees and advocating for students in Ontario. Accordingly, any profit that is earned on a conference or other initiative is reinvested into our conferences and province-wide initiatives to ensure that they are more affordable and accessible for student trustees to attend. It should be noted that OSTA-AECO’s current operating model does not consist of paid employees. All Officers, Directors, and student trustees of the organization donate their time and services to OSTA-AECO for no monetary or financial compensation. The Board of Directors has the fiduciary duty to oversee and advise the Executive Council in all operational activities to align short-term goals with the long-term vision of the organization. The Board of Directors maintains internal procedures that promote fiscal management, accountability, risk mitigation, long-term sustainability, and social responsibility. As a publicly funded not-for-profit corporation, these procedures comply with not-for-profit corporate regulations and are designed to maintain transparent and accurate financial records in accordance with regulatory requirements. The primary purpose of OSTA-AECO in recent years has been to provide professional development for the student trustees of Ontario, while offering beneficial and unique opportunities to participate in provincial advocacy, and to network with influential people in various disciplines of the working world. Agendas at OSTA-AECO conferences are very carefully planned over several months. The agendas are filled with keynote speakers who are able to inspire and engage Ontario’s student trustees, networking sessions with other student trustees and members of the education community, working group and board council work sessions to facilitate the advocacy work of the association, and workshops that help student trustees explore topics such as boardroom finance, media management strategy, policy development, and developing effective advocacy strategies. At every level OSTA-AECO strives to engage the student trustees of Ontario in developing their advocacy skills to best represent the students of their board.

Recent challenges

Despite the valuable work and ongoing success of OSTA-AECO, there are challenges that inhibit the association and, by extension, the student trustees in Ontario. The most prominent and significant obstacles include:

  1. Inequitable and Inaccessible PD Budgets: Many student trustees across Ontario have limited line of sight into their annual professional development budgets and have very limited input into how their own budget is used. Consequently, student trustees are unaware that their budgets are not commensurate with that of their trustee colleagues, resulting in inequity to the detriment of Ontario’s students.
  2. Unpredictability of Annual Revenue: The unpredictability of OSTA-AECO’s annual funding (largely due to Boards’ inconsistent payment of membership fees), severely limits the organization’s ability to provide consistent professional development opportunities year-to-year for student trustees and to initiate long term strategic plans for the benefit of our students.

These ongoing challenges hinder the ability of student trustees to best represent and advocate on behalf of Ontario’s approximately 2 million students.

Inequitable and inaccessible PD budgets

At each of OSTA-AECO’s three annual conferences, a common topic of discussion among attending student trustees is their lack of a defined, Ministry-funded professional development budget. §55(7) of the Ontario Education Act stipulates that “a student trustee has the same status as a board member with respect to access to board resources and opportunities for training.”[2] Despite this legislation, and because Ministry-provided student trustee funding is not managed by student trustees, there is an alarming number of student trustees who are not given access to any PD budget at all, who are not provided with a PD budget commensurate with their adult colleagues, and/or who are not able to access the funds required to attend our OSTA-AECO conferences. Further, there exists the ability for boards to elect to apply any available funding instead to various broad student initiatives without any consultation with their student trustees. The reality is that the current funding provided to boards with respect to student trustee professional development is insufficient and is allocated in such a way as to minimize the autonomy of student trustees. These practices have a detrimental effect on student trustees’ abilities to gain the appropriate training and professional development to which they are entitled, thus resulting in an inability to effectively represent their constituents.

This issue is particularly prominent in Northern and rural boards, whose student trustees are not given adequate resources to develop their skills as student representatives and to participate in provincial advocacy undertaken by OSTA-AECO and other partners. Due to significant financial and geographic barriers, student trustees from Northern and rural boards are isolated from provincial advocacy work undertaken by OSTA-AECO and other key stakeholders in education. Each year, the OSTA-AECO standing committee on Indigenous Relations faces enormous barriers to their success. The inability to contact and connect with Indigenous student trustees in Northern boards severely limits their potential, and as a result, acts as a detriment to Indigenous, Northern, and rural students across the province. If the attendance of Northern and rural student trustees at OSTA-AECO and other provincial meetings can be increased, a greater level of equity for these districts, and students, can be achieved.

Unpredictability of annual revenue

Due to the lack of predictability when considering annual revenue figures, it is very difficult to fulfill necessary long-term strategic planning for the association.  Many long-term initiatives that require annual and sustainable investment are not initiated due to the uncertainty surrounding the ability to invest on a continual basis. Consequently, this issue affects the ability of the association to undertake important advocacy projects to benefit our student trustees, and by extension the students they represent. If OSTA-AECO could accurately forecast annual membership revenues, the association would be able to implement improved financial management practices while also investing in our student trustees and their constituents on a long-term basis. The uncertainty of school board support, and thus financial planning, should not inhibit the incredible long-term advocacy work of our student trustees.

Each year, at the OSTA-AECO Annual General Meeting (AGM), a new Executive Council is elected. Like OPSBA and OCSTA, this council is tasked with the management and operational direction of OSTA-AECO. Although we endeavour to accomplish many operational tasks remotely, monthly in person meetings are required to ensure that the association is constantly evolving with the rapid pace of provincial advocacy. The current unpredictability of annual revenue requires the association to ask the student trustee members of the Executive to absorb travel and meal costs associated with these meetings into their own school board professional development budgets. As a result, those student trustees who serve on the OSTA-AECO executive have reduced budget funds available to them for professional development. Furthermore, these school boards have noted that this requirement places an unfair onus on their budgets. This is particularly challenging for Executive members who live far from Toronto. No student trustee should be precluded from serving on the Executive because of geographic and financial constraints.

In the 1990s, when the Ministry of Education was reviewing the funding formula and conducting local consultations, a common theme emerged among school boards. The boards found that school trustee association membership and conference fees were a significant burden on their annual budgets, and they agreed that this burden should not fall on the school board itself. The result was a modification of the funding formula which considered the membership and conference fees, ensuring that the board no longer needed to absorb such a large financial burden. For trustee associations, this change meant accurate, transparent, and sustainable budget practices, allowing Ontario’s school trustee associations to thrive over the last decade. At the time when these changes occurred, OSTA-AECO had not yet been founded and therefore, to this day, OSTA-AECO conference and membership fees are still a burden to school boards. Consequently, although every board in the province belongs to a school trustee association, OSTA-AECO lacks many member boards, and indeed, possesses an even greater number of student trustees that do not attend conferences or provincial meetings. Feedback gathered from student trustees suggests that some school boards are not able to afford paying for an OSTA-AECO membership or sending their student trustees to conferences. There must be an emphasis placed on educating school boards regarding the importance of student voice and, in particular, the importance of a centralized student advocacy network.

Without Ministry support comparable to other school trustee associations, the ability of OSTA-AECO to deliver world class professional development for student trustees, participate in provincial advocacy, and provide all Ontario students with the representation they deserve, will be severely jeopardized over the coming years.

OSTA Supports: a solution for the future

A financial solution is being proposed to mitigate the obstacles and challenges faced by both student trustees and OSTA-AECO. This solution will bring Northern and rural student equity, as well as student engagement at large to the level that Ontario’s students deserve.

OSTA-AECO proposes the following:

  1. Membership & Registration Fee Process: OSTA-AECO’s membership and conference registration fees should be included with the current funding provided by the Ministry, on an equitable basis, to ensure student trustees have access to the same resources as school trustees.
  2. PD Budget Transparency: The Ministry of Education, in partnership with OSTA-AECO actively and continuously encourage student trustee involvement in professional development spending in order to allow Student trustees to manage their own professional development budgets.

Membership and registration fee process

Each year, OSTA-AECO determines membership fees using a two-part formula:

  • Fixed Base Membership Fee: $750
  • Variable Membership Fee: $1,800 per Student Trustee[3] + $0.05 per student[4]

Combined, the Base and Variable Membership Fees allow for an equitable contribution to OSTA-AECO, across boards of all sizes.

PD budget transparency

In Ontario, student trustees, pursuant to §55(7) of the Education Act, have the same status as all board members with respect to accessing board resources and training opportunities. In order to truly have equal status, given that student trustees require much of the same professional development as school trustees and OSTA-AECO is the sole provider of this professional development, boards should not be responsible for paying this membership while school trustee association membership funds are funded through the funding formula. Additionally, student trustees are less able to successfully advocate for the purchase of a student trustee association membership and conference attendance, due to the ratio of school trustees to student trustees and due to the inability of student trustees to control their own professional development funding. For these reasons, provincial student trustee association memberships and conference fees should be enveloped.

With respect to OSTA-AECO, these changes will allow the association to plan and execute on long-term strategic objectives. Due to the extremely high turnover rate among student trustees (average one year terms), strategic and financial planning are very difficult and hinder the ability of the association to take on long-term advocacy projects. These changes will allow the association to effectively plan and execute on strategic priorities. Additionally, the changes will remove the financial strain currently placed on the boards who have a student trustee on the Executive Council. Furthermore, ensuring that Northern and rural boards no longer absorb the burden of student trustee association memberships and conference fees will allow for greater participation by Indigenous, Northern, and rural students.


With the help of our provincial partners, OSTA-AECO can continue to grow as an effective and equitable association that fosters a sense of community across the province and provides our student trustees with the tools they need to best represent their constituents. Ultimately, these changes will not only free school boards from student trustees’ financial challenges and improve the advocacy ability of student trustees, but will equitably improve the quality of education for Ontario’s most important investment: its students.

Summary of recommendations

OSTA-AECO recommends:

  1. That OSTA-AECO’s membership and conference fees should be included with the current funding provided by the Ministry, on an equitable basis, to ensure student trustees have access to the same resources as municipally-elected trustees.
  2. The Ministry of Education, in partnership with OSTA-AECO actively and continuously encourage student trustee involvement in professional development spending in order to allow Student trustees to manage their own professional development budgets.

Appendix A – Student trustee budget: current vs. future state

Appendix B – Proposed future funding

Appendix C – High-level estimate of OSTA-AECO budget


1 “Non-profit organizations.” Government of Canada. Retrieved 2018/02/20. https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/tax/non-profit-organizations.html.
2 Education Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.2, § 55(7). https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90e02.
3 OSTA-AECO has determined that the price of registration fees, on average, is $600 per conference.
4 Based on annual enrolment projections from the Ministry of Education