So another third-party school board review has lifted up some rocks, and lo, all manner of creatures have crawled out. This time it’s York Region, but it almost doesn’t matter what board is at fault, because the story is always the same: trustees more concerned with their own agendas than with doing their jobs, a dysfunctional relationship between elected leaders and the staff they nominally oversee, and a non-trivial amount of public money dubiously spent.
Yes, it’s York Region today, but the above could just as easily describe the Toronto District School Board in 2015. On Wednesday, York Region announced its education director J. Philip Parappally was getting the heave-ho — near enough what happened in Toronto with Donna Quan.
The province keeps having to weigh in on school boards’ affairs, and accountability issues aren’t the end of it. In 2012, Queen’s Park had to pass the Accepting Schools Act to legally protect gay-straight alliances after Catholic schools in Mississauga and Halton had banned them; one Halton trustee helpfully noted that board “doesn't allow Nazi groups either.” In 2014, the province ordered several boards to cancel politically inconvenient pay increases for trustees.
Ontario has had school boards since 1807, when each oversaw precisely one school and had funding for precisely one teacher. And at least as far back as 1818, people have been complaining about them. As William Crooks of Grimbsy wrote at the time, Upper Canada’s schools were “inundated with the worthless scum” because board members were more interested in “comfortable sinecures” than in educating children.
By the 1960s, the government had begun making broad systemic changes to the school system. Under then–Education Minister Bill Davis, the number of boards in Ontario fell from more than 3,000 to fewer than 200 (today there are just 72). But as they decreased in number, they grew in size; instead of looking after single schools (or maybe elementary and secondary school pairings), boards began to resemble small municipal governments, with large staffs and property portfolios to manage — but at least they had the funding to carry out their expanded remits.
In the ’90s, the government’s priorities changed. Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservatives cut funding, stripped school boards of their independent taxing powers, and relegated trustees to part-time roles.
Some boards have never really accepted the demotion: Margaret Wilson’s 2015 report on TDSB dysfunction found trustees and staff yearning for the “good old days” of the pre-Harris era (which had ended 20 years prior, giving some sense of how little new blood makes its way into the upper echelons of school-board administration).
Despite their reduced power, boards are still tasked with making sure hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren have well-maintained classrooms and good teachers. And while money from the Ministry of Education waxes and wanes, boards still have substantial budgets, some of which always seems to leak out to extracurricular activities — consider York Region’s habit of jetting trustees and senior staff off to far-flung travel destinations.
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The Liberals reopened the money spigot, buying labour peace with teachers for most of the last 14 years, but didn’t substantively reverse the Harris-era changes to the structure of school boards. If anything, they’ve further centralized Ontario’s role, legally entrenching the provincial government as the only party that matters when it comes to negotiating with teachers unions. The province has also taken over the procurement of school buses in an effort to keeps costs in check, with questionable results.
(One thing the Liberals dragged their feet on for years was establishing any external oversight of the school system. The provincial Ombudsman only received that power in 2015.)
So board members have few tools to control costs, revenue, and curricula. But they’re also in elected positions that can serve as a stepping stone to higher office, and even if trustees aren’t looking elsewhere, they’re comfortable enough and rarely threatened: 40 per cent of trustee seats aren’t contested at all, and even when incumbents are challenged they tend to win handily.
Big school boards with big budgets (though never big enough, trustees insist), little oversight, and members who seldom face serious electoral competition: Is it any wonder trustees get caught with their hands in the cookie jar, or are blindsided by the changing needs of an increasingly diverse student body?
Maybe, as Martin Regg Cohn has argued in the Toronto Star, it’s time to get rid of elected boards altogether. In a sense, we almost have: the number of school boards has shrunk 97 per cent since 1960. Would we really notice the remaining 3 per cent?
When it comes to appointed bodies, though, Ontario has a mixed record. Police boards are appointed and oversee bodies surely as crucial to our day-to-day lives as schools are, and they have at least as many problems delivering real oversight: the Toronto Police Services Board was totally in the dark about its own role during the 2010 G20 conference, during which officers committed numerous abuses. Even outside the worst-case scenario, police boards are often a dumping ground for the politically well-connected (Sudbury’s board, for example, was chaired by Liberal fundraiser Gerry Lougheed — until he was served with criminal charges that have since been stayed). It’s not a model that screams improvement.
Alternatively, it might make sense to go back to having many more, much smaller school boards. If the province is going to do most of the work big school boards used to do anyway, perhaps we should go back to the days when parents oversaw how their local schools were run — and nothing else. As the workload would be smaller, the government could probably get away with making the positions unpaid.
Or we could just keep muddling along with more or less the system we have now, waiting for the next scandal, the next government-commissioned report, the next heartfelt apology and promise of reform.
Watch The Agenda tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. for an in-depth discussion on Ontario school boards.
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