The new chair of the Toronto District School Board says the troubled organization has already started to change, and one good sign is the harmonious way she landed the job.
Robin Pilkey is one of the rookies who took over half of the board's 22 seats in last fall's election. She was acclaimed as chair on Wednesday after what she said was a behind-the-scenes show of support that cut across the board's old and new guards.
"I think that there's been a lot of enthusiasm from the returning trustees that there are so many new trustees, and opportunities around that, I think. They've been very, very positive," said Ms. Pilkey, a chartered professional accountant whose three children have attended High Park-area schools.
"I don't think that we're at war. As a new trustee, I haven't seen that."
Previous chair Shaun Chen stepped down from the position in order to run for the Liberals in the federal election in Scarborough North, a move expected since he won the nomination in January. He is taking a leave of absence from his trustee position until the election ends.
For years the board has been infamous for its internal battles, which became so disruptive that the province stepped in and is still looking at drastically restructuring it.
At the province's request, consultant Margaret Wilson first investigated and reported back on what she called a "culture of fear" in the organization, and a panel led by former mayor Barbara Hall is following up with their own report on concrete solutions, including the possibility of splitting up the board, which is Canada's largest. Ms. Hall's report is expected to be released this summer or fall.
Ms. Pilkey said the next few months will be a crash course in the inner workings of the board that she wouldn't have seen as a sitting trustee. However, she said her experience in the past eight months doesn't reflect the horror stories that inspired the various investigations. She said she received no discouragement when she canvassed fellow board members about running to replace Mr. Chen.
As chair, she wants to improve collaboration with board staff and with the province, which holds tight financial control over all Ontario school boards, she said.
"We're keen to work with them," she said. "We have a good group of trustees, though, so a lot of the issues [Ms. Hall] was asked to investigate – I'm not sure if they exist in the same way that they once did."
Another goal is to increase equity across Toronto's schools, especially when it comes to repairing and expanding property, Ms. Pilkey said.
Originally from Montreal, she moved to Toronto in 2001 and started her own accounting business, later becoming chair of the school council at Swansea Public School and then at Western Technical-Commercial School. With Parkdale and High Park-area schools overcapacity, she and other parents fought for and won building expansions at three schools, but the process ended up unsettling her, she said.
"Fantastic for this neighbourhood, fantastic for our school, but the reality was… of those business cases, ours were not the worst schools on the original list," she said. "But we were fortunate that we had very active, involved parents who had time and the means and the ability to push this, right? And for me, standing back, that's not appropriate. That's not how decisions should be made, and it's not equitable across the system."
Some of the schools on the list for capital projects are still on the same list four years later, she said.
The experience helped inspire the NDP member to run for trustee, she said. She was supported during her run by the Campaign for Public Education, a coalition including labour and community groups that opposes provincial education cuts. She said she had no plans to run for higher office.
Veteran Beaches-East York trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher will remain vice-chair until December, when both she and Ms. Pilkey will be up for re-election to their positions.