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Toronto District School Board chair Chris Bolton was the driving force behind the Confucius Institute partnership. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)
Toronto District School Board chair Chris Bolton was the driving force behind the Confucius Institute partnership. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Why isn't the city taking a hard look at Toronto's school board? Add to ...

In city elections, the candidates talk about transit, they talk about taxes, they talk about jobs, they talk about bike lanes. What they seldom talk about is the institution that is perhaps most important to Toronto’s future success: the school system.

That sets Toronto apart from many big cities. In New York, where the mayor appoints the superintendent of schools, the state of public schooling is a hot topic. The same goes for Chicago, where the mayor appoints the chief executive of schools. In Toronto, where the provincial government pays the bills and trustees select the school-board chair, schools are a non-issue in elections except in the little-watched contests to elect the trustees.

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That’s a shame. With a $3-billion budget, nearly 600 schools and about 250,000 students, the Toronto District School Board is a vast bureaucracy that desperately needs effective oversight. The TDSB isn’t getting it.

The board is a nest of quarrelsome trustees whose arguments go around and around in circles. Wandering into one of its meetings in the stuffy boardroom at 5050 Yonge St. is like coming upon an elders meeting of some ancient tribe far past its glory. The board chair even brought in a couple cops to police a meeting earlier this year after a series of complaints that trustees were rude and abusive to each other and to TDSB staff.

It’s hard to keep track of all the missteps and controversies that have come out of the board in the current four-year term, which ends with the municipal election on Oct. 27.

Chris Spence, the board’s education director, resigned in a plagiarism scandal. An internal audit of trustees’ spending showed dubious expense claims. One trustee said in a misdirected reply-all e-mail that his colleagues made his “skin crawl” and that if he had no interest in their “malicious misery, ill-breeding and sourpusses.” Veteran trustee Howard Goodman told constituents he was in such “despair” over the state of the TDSB that he won’t run for the office again. He said that with the education ministry imposing policies on everything from class sizes to the terms of labour settlements, it is becoming impossible for trustees to do their jobs.

To add to the board’s troubles, chair Chris Bolton resigned suddenly this month. His departure followed a report in this newspaper about how he directed some donations to his own charity meant for a Toronto elementary school where he was principal (he insists that he did nothing improper and was leaving for personal reasons), and a revolt by some parents and activists over the board’s decision to establish a Chinese-government-supported Confucius Institute.

Intended to promote Chinese language and culture, the institute was denounced by critics as a propaganda tool. At the TDSB meeting this week, the final one of the school year, board members argued late into the evening before finally deciding to delay setting it up.

It would be nice to think that the coming election would clear the decks and allow the TDSB to make a new start. That seems unlikely. Incumbent trustees can be hard to unseat. What is needed is a rethink of the whole system of governance.

Trustees are supposed to convey the concerns of local parents and residents about how the schools are managed and children taught. They generally do that well, often to a fault. Trustees are faithful carriers of that civic disease, NIMBYism. That’s why it is so hard to close a school, however underused, or to sell off surplus school lands, however much money it would raise for better-equipped classrooms.

What trustees don’t seem up to, at least in a system as big as Toronto’s, is overseeing the management of a complex organization. That is what a corporate board is supposed to do – monitor, scrutinize and question the decisions of company executives. But at the TDSB the result is often ill-informed cheap shots. One of the main sources of the recent discord has been the tendency of some trustees to berate professional staff who are only trying to do their jobs.

Should Queen’s Park take over the TDSB and run it directly? Should the board chair be elected city-wide, like the mayor? Should principals be given more autonomy to run their schools?

At the very least, the TDSB needs more attention from city leaders. Its troubles should worry everyone who cares about the city. Candidates for mayor and city council should be speaking up about it, even if the jurisdiction is not strictly theirs. Instead we have silence.

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