Toronto's public school trustees are spending thousands of dollars on postage, trips to conferences and hiring constituency assistants even as they face a huge deficit that has led to staff layoffs.
Two Toronto District School Board trustees, Chris Tonks and Sam Sotiropoulos, spent $7,603 and $4,030, respectively, on stamps for mailing out newsletters; trustee Shelley Laskin spent more than $2,000 on professional development; and four other trustees spent more than $10,000 on constituency assistants between September and February as itemized on the board's website.
The expenses come as trustees at Canada's largest board contemplate cutting the number of music instructors it employs, among other items, at a June meeting when they grapple with a nearly $30-million deficit. Trustees voted earlier this year to slash about 250 high-school teaching jobs, including special education teachers and guidance counsellors, to help deal with the shortfall.
The spending decisions of some trustees have raised questions about whether funds are being spent wisely at a cash-strapped board. TDSB trustees are given $27,000 for discretionary expenses, and any money left over goes towards the bottom line. All expenditures are signed off on by the school board.
"We should be concerned that we're spending our money well, that we're getting good value for what it is we're spending our money on," TDSB chair Chris Bolton said. "We need to remain vigilant."
Mr. Bolton said he will raise the issue at the June meeting. He also plans to bring forward a motion that all international travel for professional development needs to be approved by the board, not just the chair. In neighbouring Peel District School Board, there are caps on different kinds of discretionary spending, including professional development.
TDSB trustees whose expense sheets raised red flags defended their actions, and, in some cases, accused others of misspending.
Mr. Tonks said that he mailed out a newsletter in the second week of school because many of the parents in his ward, York South Weston, don't have access to e-mails or computers. Mr. Sotiropoulos said that, as a new trustee, he did not have access to e-mail addresses and needed to use snail mail. "Everybody's not on e-mail. I'm a new trustee. ... I do have to build up a rapport with the public in the ward, and it's very difficult to do so if you don't at least send out some kind of mailing to the entire ward to get them interested in matters that relate to the schools," he said.
Mr. Sotiropoulos questioned the expenses of one trustee in particular, Ms. Laskin, on out-of-country conferences. The board has a moratorium on international travel to curb expenses, unless specifically approved by the chair.
Ms. Laskin has spent $2,347 in professional development between September and February, the highest among the board's 22 trustees. To date, she has spent about $5,400, including almost $3,000 for a school boards conference in San Diego and $465.78 to stay at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto even though she resides in the city.
She defended her hotel stay. "When I go to a conference, I am a full participant in the conference, that means the formal and the informal," she said.
Ms. Laskin said she understands the need to be careful with the board's money, but "if it's [being a trustee] a legitimate role, there have to be expenses associated with it."
"I make a conscious decision and choose to spend a portion of my expenses to educate myself and to promote the excellence in the Toronto District School Board," she said. "Others choose to spend less on conferences and more on community mailings or constituency assistants. All are valid ... all are approved by the chair."
Trustee Howard Goodman agreed that professional development is important because it has benefits for schools and how to run the operations of a board. Mr. Goodman is among those who have spent more than $10,000 on constituency assistants. He said the money spent on an assistant is more effective in reaching out to parents and arranging school community meetings than the mailings sent by other trustees. "As a homeowner, when I get unsolicited mail, I don't spend a lot of time looking at it," Mr. Goodman said.
In 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.
Mr. Bolton said there has been no discussion about capping trustee expenditures by item at the TDSB, but the concept piqued his curiosity. "It's an interesting idea," he said. "I certainly will talk about it at the board."
The highest and lowest discretionary expenditures for five select categories from September, 2012, to February, 2013.
$1,451 (Mari Rutka)
$3 (Chris Tonks)
(11 trustees did not submit any expenses in this category)
$1,098 (David Smith)
$134 (Gerri Gershon and Shaun Chen)
(3 trustees did not submit any expenses in this category)
$1,097 (Sheila Ward)
$8 (Shelley Laskin)
(6 trustees did not submit any expenses in this category)
Contractual services (constituency assistant)
$12,379 (John Hastings)
$503 (Gerri Gershon)
(2 trustees did not submit any expenses in this category)
$7,603 (Chris Tonks)
$27 (Elizabeth Moyer)
(18 trustees did not submit any expenses in this category)