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Why school trustees have lost the public’s trust

Trustees are politicians without a purpose, an unneeded layer that gets in the way of educating our children.
Jan. 19, 2015
By Martin Regg Cohn

Our public trustees have lost the public’s trust. And the school board’s director lacks direction.

That’s the verdict from an outside expert brought in by the government to probe an ungovernable Toronto District School Board.

Consultant Margaret Wilson found the TDSB’s 250,000 students studying hard, their teachers teaching well, and the principals still principled. But the trustees and director act like problem children.

It’s a reversal of role models: While students and teachers are on their best behaviour, the politicians and pedagogue-in-chief are accused of bullying and oppositional defiance.

Director of education Donna Quan is the micromanager who doesn’t play well with others. According to Wilson’s report she makes a point of correcting spelling mistakes by her subordinates, while openly defying the elected trustees with whom she is supposed to share leadership duties.

As for the elected trustees, they are unadulterated usurpers. Intoxicated by the idea of democratic mandates, they imagine themselves as putative city councillors. But trustees now have sharply circumscribed responsibilities under provincial law. Lacking any taxing powers or control over the curriculum, they are relegated to consulting with parents and bringing their concerns to the board, while leaving management to the managers.

Misconstruing their mandates, elected trustees are prone to mission creep - meddling in the daily affairs of school board staff, intimidating principals, and occupying office space to which they have no claim. While trustees strayed beyond their legal responsibility, they failed to wield their lawful authority when it came time to play paymaster with the current director of education.

A previous board chair ignored a provincial injunction to freeze Quan’s salary at the $272,000 level of her predecessor (Chris Spence, another problematic role model hired by the board, quit when he was caught plagiarizing in a way that would get any student expelled).

Bizarrely, the old board bumped Quan up to $289,000 - at the same time as the teachers she was supervising were forced to abide by a province-wide wage freeze. A new board chair couldn’t get Quan to cough up her contract - she obfuscated by claiming confidentiality, and then lawyered up before finally handing it over.

Rather than right that wrong - a salary in violation of the province’s wage freeze law - a newly elected board of trustees voted, remarkably, to reaffirm Quan’s raise this month. Instead of just cutting cheques, trustees are supposed to serve as a check and balance to authority.

(Quan said at a TDSB meeting last night that she was now willing to give up the increase, but no thanks to the trustees.)

There’s a pattern here. Trustees overrule their underlings, acquiesce to their overpaid director of education, while undermining the duly elected minister of education.

Blame the system. Tempting as it is to ascribe the TDSB’s dysfunctional behaviour to personality conflicts or political clashes, the problem goes deeper, and extends to other jurisdictions - not least the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

Trustees’ duties were sharply reduced in the 1990s, along with their salaries. Today, it’s a part-time job that still attracts people with full-time ambitions.

Armed with embarrassingly thin democratic mandates - voter turnouts for trustees are dismal, and name-recognition is unrecognizable - trustees persuade themselves that they are doing God’s work. But they are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, merely an anachronism.

Trustees cling to the illusion of electoral accountability and grassroots legitimacy. But we don’t elect hospital trustees to govern our hospitals, which are run by appointed boards. Surely health care is no less important than education.

A similar model could work for our schools. Why not consolidate boards under the education ministry, appointing local representatives to give voice to local concerns without giving anyone a false sense of importance? While some worry that appointed representatives might be too compliant, the reality is that our elected trustees can already be sidelined by the education minister in our current system.

Our trustees are politicians without a purpose, rebels without a role. They are an unneeded layer that gets in the way of educating our children.

While some might ask how students would get along without trustees, the miracle is that our schools now get by in spite of them.