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Toronto On the hunt for a new director, TDSB goes back to the drawing board

TDSB acting director Donna Quan is shown inside the boardroom of the TDSB at the beginning of their meeting in Toronto on Jan. 16, 2013. The board is trying to decide upon a successor to Chris Spence, and Quan's is one name being suggested as a real possibility.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

What does a school board that has just emerged from a year in crisis need? A leader – and in a hurry. As August draws to an end, the Toronto District School Board is on a closely watched hunt for a director to rescue it from the brink and shepherd the $2.9-billion organization.

The biggest challenge for a new education director will be changing a culture that is poisonous and dysfunctional: The 22 trustees of the board are difficult to work with – they are politically divided on almost every issue that arises. The new director will have to contend with the ongoing difficulty of balancing a budget as trustees complain of chronic underfunding and refuse to make cuts, and parents who are anxious after a year of classroom strife between teachers and the province.

Perhaps the biggest problem confronting the next leader is restoring the reputation of Canada's largest school board after a plagiarism scandal.

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The previous director, Chris Spence, resigned amid allegations that he copied the work of others on his personal blog and in newspaper opinion pieces.

The pressure is now on to select a candidate who can rescue the board's image and help put it on strong financial footing, while balancing the pressures of a politically and ethnically diverse community.

So, why would anyone want to take on this position? Ambition – a chance to lead Canada's largest school board? A desire to effect change? To make a difference?

"It's a difficult board to deal with. If I was going into that interview, I'd be interviewing them. They wouldn't be interviewing me," said one prominent education observer.

The search for Dr. Spence's replacement began in earnest this summer. A search committee is aiming to finalize the new director by early October, with the person starting in the new year. Here's a look at what lies ahead.

THE CHALLENGES

Only a small number of candidates are even able to apply. To be considered, the person must have a master's degree, an Ontario Teaching certificate and a supervisory officer's certificate. The last requirement limits the pool, but defenders of the process argue that a director of education needs to understand the education business in the province.

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A recent report by provincially-appointed advisers, led by former York Region director Bill Hogarth, called for tighter financial controls across the system, saying the board "continues to be challenged by the lack of an organizational vision to support its core mandate of student achievement."

These challenges come on top of the reality that the TDSB is among the most diverse boards in the country, educating more than 250,000 students and catering to the demands of a wide range of stakeholders – providing breakfast programs to low-income students, and international baccalaureates for high achievers.

There's an expectation among parents, the community and many in the school board, said trustee Shelley Laskin, that the TDSB should provide resources for every child even as it works within a "simple" provincial funding model. "At times, we are limited by the nature of what we can provide. For the director, it will be about balancing that complexity with the priorities and the funding," she said.

More recently, under the gun from the province, trustees approved a three-year capital plan to sell off 12 closed school sites to alleviate some fiscal struggles and manage the board's capital costs. The director and the board will have to start implementing that plan – a move that's likely to face parental and community opposition. If it doesn't push forward, though, the government will keep close tabs and the TDSB faces the constant threat of a provincial takeover.

Last time around, the TDSB picked a visionary leader in selecting Dr. Spence. No one could have predicted such an abrupt departure. Now, the selection committee will employ a stronger vetting process than before in their choice and may be inclined, sources say, to find someone innovative but who also has a strong organizational and fiscal bent, given what lies ahead.

THE POLITICS

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Despite the challenges, the job is lucrative. Dr. Spence earned about $270,000. But anyone who walks into it will need to know how to work with the board – to bring a divisive group of trustees alongside, to give-and-take on a vision.

"It's very doable job," said John Campbell, a former TDSB chair. "The difficulty comes in the politics of the trustees."

The TDSB trustees are the most fractious education group in the province. They are often deadlocked and, for some of them, the job is a stepping stone to municipal or provincial politics and about protecting their particular community interests. That makes it very difficult for the TDSB to carry out tough decisions such as closing schools, say former board members and politicians.

"The trustees are very demanding. But it is possible for a director to do the job without being political," said Bruce Davis, a former trustee. Mr. Davis argued that the position needs to be split in two: a director who manages the teaching and learning, and a CEO responsible for the real-estate, technology and other financial affairs.

WHAT IT TAKES

The education director at the TDSB is viewed as the toughest position in public education in Ontario. That one person has to be a financial guru, an education innovator, a visionary, a relationship-builder. But ultimately, that person has to be a motivator.

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"In an organization like that, I think you need somebody who's going to inspire people to do good work. A banker is not going to inspire people to do great work," said Mr. Campbell, who recruited Dr. Spence from Hamilton back in 2009.

Howard Goodman, a long-time TDSB trustee, said it's difficult to find one person with all the traits required to run such a big, diverse board. "We're an organization with complex operational needs. We have facility issues, we have employee-relations issues, we have financial issues," he said.

Previous directors - and there have been only a handful since amalgamation - were in many ways the right fit at the time. Gerry Connelly proved to be a calming presence as the board struggled with amalgamation and was coming out of provincial supervision. Dr. Spence rebuilt community relationships and showed how schools could be a central hub as the board reeled from the 2007 murder of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate in the city's north end.

Veronica Lacey, the former director of education for the old North York board and a former Ontario deputy minister of Education and Training, said regardless of who lands the job, the TDSB cannot afford to have someone who is not innovative or does not have the courage to stand up to political forces both within the organization and down the road at Queen's Park.

"It's the most complex, diverse and largest educational system in this country. It's the biggest deal in this country," she said.

POTENTIAL PLAYERS

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A search committee made up of trustees is scheduled to begin the first round of interviews shortly, followed by another round before they recommend a candidate to the board.

Since Mr. Spence resigned in January, Donna Quan, former deputy director, has temporarily filled the position – and some say the job is now hers to lose. The search committee is still working on a shortlist, but the following names have been among those mentioned by education observers as possible qualified contenders:

Martyn Beckett, director of education at the Durham District School Board: Approachable, a consensus builder, he's often referred to as Father Beckett. Mr. Beckett understands the diversity issues of a school board like the TDSB.

Ken Thurston, director of education, York Region District School Board and a former special adviser to the Minister of Education: His school board has been at the forefront of settling disputes with teacher unions.

John Malloy, director of education, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board: He has had to deal with the issue of school closings at his board, one which the TDSB will face in upcoming years.

Donna Quan, TDSB's acting director: Ms. Quan has an operational bent and thinks through issues. Her latest move over the summer, however, to request the Ministry of Education conduct a forensic audit that would cover the director of education's office, salary increases and a summer youth program has many confused as to why she would go out of her way to involve the province. "I think we've already seen an awkward step," said one education insider.

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The year ahead will call for a strong voice as the TDSB recovers from a tumultuous year of labour action and deals with getting its books in order to meet provincial demands.

"The director of the TDSB is a very powerful voice, and if the TDSB doesn't stand up on an issue, it's really hard for other boards to," Mr. Goodman said. "The willingness of the director to challenge the province on misguided initiatives that are bad for schools and bad for students, that's the political independent piece."

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