Are School Trustees Important?
Trustees must be able to act as parents' and students' elected advocates
By Paul Bocking
A toxic work environment and allegations of murky procurement contracts and sideline business deals at the headquarters of the Toronto District School Board were exposed in the media last year, implicating trustees and the director of the TDSB. Public concern over their conduct helped defeat an unusual number of incumbent trustees in the recent municipal election, and led Ontario's education minister Liz Sandals to ask former educator Margaret Wilson to investigate.
Released in mid-January, her findings of a "culture of fear" among board staff said to be harassed and under surveillance by some trustees and top administrators were widely reported in the media, as was the director's initial refusal to reveal her salary to the trustees. Wilson recommended sharply reducing the capacity of trustees to intervene in areas considered beyond their responsibility such as the hiring of principals in their wards, procurement, and pet projects such as a scheme by the director and a former chair of the board to place teachers in a private school in Vietnam.
A key issue here is the proper balance between relying on the professional expertise of senior school board staff, and the democratic oversight provided by trustees. Wilson's report clearly identifies where trustees overreached their mandate and micromanaged. However, in the report's final pages, Wilson introduces a new issue. She argues that trustees have intervened to prevent necessary school closures to protect their popularity among their constituents. One could present this another way: parents and local residents believe their neighbourhood school is still needed and their elected trustee supports them. Following Wilson's report, the provincial government demanded the TDSB prepare a plan to sell "underutilized" schools, arguing that the prompt sale of these lands and buildings would bring in cash to help meet the board's approximately $3 billion backlog of much-needed repairs.
The provincial government may be hoping to slide through the politically controversial school closures by raising this among recommendations that otherwise nearly entirely focus on providing remedies to the widely recognized bad behaviour of some senior board staff and trustees.
Selling off these public lands and buildings to the market would be a big loss for the common good. It is true that a number of high schools are currently operating well under capacity. However, secondary student enrollment is projected to increase in four to five years as the grandchildren of baby boomers begin to graduate from elementary school. In the meantime, and where future growth may not be sufficient in some areas of the city, we could make real the rhetoric of schools as community hubs, endorsed by current and past premiers with an enthusiasm not matched by meaningful funding. By adapting to demographic changes and continuing to serve the public good, new uses could include seniors' centres, community health clinics, or the renting of space to the city to provide affordable, quality child care. None of this is readily possible if the provincial government continues to pressure the TDSB to unload these properties onto the market (more condos?) for short-term cash. With Toronto's rapidly rising property values, it could become prohibitive to acquire new large public spaces. We need to think of how best to use these resources for the long term.
Reducing the power of school trustees also has consequences for local democracy. Most would agree trustees should not interfere in the everyday operations of schools and the work of professional educators, or attempt to build up "ward fiefdoms" for their electoral advancement. However, at their best, by being responsive to parents, trustees can be strong advocates for public education, especially when this passion is not shared by other levels of government. Toronto trustees spoke out publicly against deep cuts to school funding under former Conservative premier Mike Harris. They helped galvanize large-scale, successful opposition to mass school closures across the city. Harris ensured that under the newly amalgamated TDSB, trustee compensation was reduced from a full time salary to a token $5000 honorarium, ensuring few could afford to devote substantial time to the job. Since then, TDSB trustees' income has increased. Currently they receive approximately $25,000.
Some American cities such as New York and Chicago have replaced elected trustees with boards appointed directly by the mayor. These corporately aligned mayors have pushed the opening of privately run, publicly funded charter schools and the closure of dozens of public schools, while their state governments implement increasing numbers of high-stakes, standardized tests beginning in primary school. Opposition from parents (and senior students) was weakened by the absence of a directly accountable board of trustees. These systems do not provide a positive model for Toronto. In the case of the TDSB, a weakened board of trustees will likely result in a corresponding increase in the power of top board administrators and ultimately the provincial Ministry of Education. To ensure our school system is responsive to the needs of our students and parents at the highest levels of government policy, trustees must be able to act as their elected advocates.