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Education Minister Liz Sandals, left, arrives at a press conference at Queens Park with Margaret Wilson.
Education Minister Liz Sandals, left, arrives at a press conference at Queens Park with Margaret Wilson.

Ontario launches probe into TDSB amid controversy Add to ...

Editor's Note: All charges against Howard Goodman were dropped by the Crown on June 10, 2015. More information here

The Ontario government has launched a probe into Canada’s largest school board and raised the spectre of placing the “dysfunctional” institution under supervision.

The government appointed education consultant Margaret Wilson on Tuesday to examine operational issues at the Toronto District School Board, including the top-ranking staffer’s refusal to release her employment contract to trustees and whether the education director’s compensation complies with Ontario’s wage-freeze legislation.

Ms. Wilson will report on her findings by Dec. 31, at which point the government will conduct a broader review into the structure of the board, including whether it is too big to function properly. The TDSB, a product of the amalgamation of several boards in the late 1990s, has a $3-billion annual operating budget, more than 246,000 students in 600 schools and 22 trustees.

Education Minister Liz Sandals said at a news conference on Tuesday that she had to act. The board has become “progressively more dysfunctional and progressively more acrimonious,” she said. A standoff between several trustees and education director Donna Quan, she added, threatens to undermine public confidence in the education system.

“While we are not placing the board under supervision at this time,” Ms. Sandals warned, “there is nothing I am announcing today that precludes that step at some point in the future.”

This would not be the first time the province has taken over the school board. A Progressive Conservative government appointed a supervisor in 2002, stripping trustees of their power to spend money after they failed to deliver a balanced budget.

Ms. Sandals intervened after tensions came to a head this month over Ms. Quan’s refusal to release her employment contract, preventing trustees from reviewing her performance. Controversy has swirled around the board for several months over decisions by staff revealed in The Globe and Mail, including a mysterious $200,000 payment to a food services company and education partnerships in Asia.

“Most recently, the school board has been plagued by issues that go beyond purely financial concerns with almost daily examples of confrontation, obfuscation and a lack of communication,” Ms. Sandals said.

Ms. Quan has refused to answer questions from trustees and The Globe about the $200,000 payment she authorized to the food services company, which supplied no supporting documentation for the services it said it provided. She also stonewalled trustees over a now-cancelled partnership to teach students Mandarin through the Confucius Institutes, which are controlled and funded by the Chinese government.

In a statement on Tuesday, Ms. Quan said she welcomed Ms. Sandals’ announcement and vowed staff will “co-operate fully” with Ms. Wilson’s review.

Ms. Wilson told reporters she feels well equipped to deal with the board. She has been a classroom teacher, registrar of the Ontario College of Teachers, and secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, where she dealt with tough rounds of collective bargaining.

“I survived bombs falling in World War II, so I guess I can survive the school board,” Ms. Wilson joked.

As part of the review, Ms. Sandals has amended regulations accompanying the Education Act to give her the power to direct the school board to comply with any changes Ms. Wilson recommends. Without the amendment, the school board would not have to comply, said Mike Samansky, a spokesman for Ms. Sandals.

Ms. Sandals’ announcement comes one day before she meets with TDSB chair Mari Rutka, who asked the province to intervene. Ms. Rutka, who lost her seat in the recent election, is one of five trustees who wrote to Ms. Sandals, expressing concerns about the schism between Ms. Quan and elected officials.

“I’m very relieved,” trustee Pamela Gough said of the review. “It’s a level of intervention that will get things out in the open.”

Ms. Gough wrote to the minister to raise concerns about clashes involving two trustees and other board members and Ms. Quan over transparency. One of them, Howard Goodman, who did not seek re-election, was recently charged with forcible confinement and criminal harassment related to alleged incidents involving Ms. Quan. School board sources said he is alleged to have blocked her from leaving a room at the TDSB. Mr. Goodman’s lawyer said he will vigorously defend himself.

Trustee Shelley Laskin said she hopes the review will lead to improvements so the board can refocus on making decisions “in the best interest of students and their families.”

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