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marcus gee

Toronto in early 2013 finds itself facing a double crisis of governance. The first, of course, is at City Hall, where the mayor is threatened with removal for conflict of interest. The second is at the school board.

With a quarter of a million students and nearly 600 schools, the Toronto District School Board is the biggest in Canada and the fourth biggest in North America. It spends about $3-billion a year, a third as much as City Hall. It is a mammoth with a task that is vital to the city's future, and it is in complete disarray.

Its education director, Chris Spence, has just resigned in a plagiarism scandal. Its trustees are locked in a bitter power struggle with the provincial Education Ministry. Its teachers are in revolt.

The botched handling of Friday's strike threat was sadly typical of the way things are going at the TDSB. Parents of elementary-school children went to bed on Thursday night believing their kids would have a day off. Authorities told them that school was cancelled. They woke up to find that schools were open after all. The labour board had ruled against the strike and the TDSB had flip-flopped. Families across the city scrambled to rearrange their lives, again.

Why is the school board so dysfunctional? A decade ago, the provincial government divested the board of all authority and appointed a supervisor in its place when it failed to balance its budget. Last year, as the board again struggled with money problems, Queen's Park threatened to take over again.

Under pressure, the board let independent consultants scrutinize its operations. They found out-of-control absenteeism, overbudget building projects, underutilized schools and inefficient maintenance. The board, fearing a threat to its autonomy, bridled at the findings. It was even more offended when the province offered to send in a "special assistance team" to help trustees get it together.

The final straw for trustees came when the government imposed a renewed contract on skilled-trades workers, as it did for teachers. This week, TDSB chair Chris Bolton fired off an angry letter to Education Minister Laurel Broten that said the move had foreclosed the very reforms to labour practices that the province was demanding.

The board has a point when it argues that Queen's Park demands spending control from the board while imposing obligations like full-day kindergarten without supplying enough money to pay for them. Still, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the board is in over its head.

Turnout for electing school trustees is low, and some of them have been around for decades. Many seem to see their job as advocating for community interest groups rather than representing the common interest. The board consistently votes against measures, such as closing underused schools or selling off vacant school lands, that might help the system pay its bills but would anger constituents.

The size and budget of the TDSB have grown by leaps since municipal amalgamation, leaving an immense, bureaucratic organization with weak leadership and entrenched, self-serving unions. The whole outfit, headquartered in its North York bunker, exudes the scent of rot. It cries out for reform and renewal.

In big cities like New York or Chicago, the head of schools is a high-profile position filled by high-calibre individuals. The TDSB needs a chief executive with experience in the business world or the broader public sector at complex administration.

"They have rightly paid the most attention to their education function," says Ben Levin, a professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, "but they are also a very large property management and transportation and human-resources operation and they have to make sure these are managed effectively and efficiently."

As embarrassing and painful as it is for the TDSB, Chris Spence's departure is a golden opportunity to bring better management to Toronto's troubled school system.