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The boardroom of the TDSB at the beginning of their meeting in Toronto on Jan. 16, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The boardroom of the TDSB at the beginning of their meeting in Toronto on Jan. 16, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Audit uncovers dubious spending by TDSB trustees Add to ...

Several of Toronto’s public school trustees hired board staff as their assistants, allowing them to collect two salaries and contravening policy at Canada’s largest school board.

An internal audit of the discretionary expenses of Toronto District School Board trustees also showed widespread misuse of taxpayer money, as elected officials racked up thousands of dollars worth of improper claims for conferences, phone calls and even a $250 parking violation.

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The audit report found that at least two constituency assistants, essentially political staff who reach out to parents and arrange school community meetings, are also paid employees of the board. Constituency assistants earn around $30 an hour.

“The board should discontinue any further contractual services payments to board staff as it is in direct violation of the policy,” the stated the audit, released this week.

The spending decisions of trustees have raised questions about whether funds are being spent wisely at the cash-strapped board. A recent provincial audit report indicated that there were ineligible claims within trustee expense accounts.

TDSB trustees are given $27,000 for discretionary expenses, and any money left goes toward the bottom line. Unlike other school boards, TDSB has no maximum caps on items such as professional development or trustee assistants.

At the York Region District School Board, the board provides “reasonable levels of administrative and support services” to trustees. And at the Peel District School Board, trustees are reimbursed for no more than $2,500 for professional learning or to attend conferences and conventions. General expenses, such as business luncheons and flowers for a school opening, are capped at $3,000.

The TDSB audit report suggested reconsidering how the board allocates trustee expenses, pointing out that other school districts don’t give trustees such a large pool of money from which to draw.

But long-time trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher argued that the TDSB is a much more complex board, and the trustee should have spending discretion. “First of all, my ward alone is larger than some school boards,” she said. “I couldn’t do the job without an assistant, because it’s so complicated.”

Ms. Cary-Meagher has been pushing for trustees to post detailed expenses online. She said that if trustees had agreed to do so all along, the audit wouldn’t cause much of a stir and paint all trustees as abusers of taxpayer money.

“There’s some sloppiness on the part of trustees, and everybody has that,” she said. “But right now it’s being dumped on everybody for the misconduct of a very few.”

The audit did not specifically name trustees. It found that one elected official spent about $5,000 monthly on a constituency assistant. Payments to constituency assistants totalled nearly $1-million for 2010 to 2014, accounting for 64 per cent of trustee spending, the audit found.

The audit also found that at least four trustees who reside in Toronto attended a conference at Toronto’s Sheraton Hotel and charged hotel and dinner charges for overnight stays. Another trustee attended a three-day conference but claimed expenses for up to six days after the end of the conference.

Trustees incurred more than $14,000 in U.S. and international calls, texting and roaming charges. Thirteen of 22 trustees subscribed to additional services such as premium ring tones, picture messaging and video messaging for a total of $2,000 for 2010 to 2014. Few of them were aware these services cost extra. The trustees “can also consider turning off their phones while travelling abroad,” the report stated.

A spokeswoman for Minister of Education Liz Sandals said the government will not intervene. Spokeswoman Lauren Ramey said TDSB trustees are taking steps to approve a new policy that specifies what type of expenses can be reimbursed.

Follow on Twitter: @calphonso

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