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Toronto Ontario orders sweeping panel review of beleaguered TDSB

Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals scrums with the media following question period at Queen's Park in Toronto on Tuesday, March 3, 2015.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Ontario government is tackling the dysfunction at Canada's largest school board by appointing a panel to conduct a wide-ranging review, including whether it is too big to govern.

Education Minister Liz Sandals announced on Monday that the seven-member panel will have a broad mandate to examine how to improve the governance structure of the Toronto District School Board, restore public confidence and ensure the well-being of students.

The panel of civic leaders, educators and former trustees, led by former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall, will spend the next two months reviewing the school board, including whether chronic governance problems plaguing it are rooted in size. The TDSB, a product of the amalgamation of seven boards in 1998, has an annual operating budget of $3-billion and more than 246,000 students in 600 schools.

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"One of the things that we do need to look at is has the board, in fact, gotten too big to really be effectively managed," Ms. Sandals said at a news conference at the provincial legislature, where she was flanked by the panel members.

The minister's latest intervention follows the release of education consultant Margaret Wilson's report in January, which chronicled a litany of problems at the school board, including micromanaging by the top-ranking staffer, trustees routinely interfering in day-to-day operations and fears among many employees that their e-mails and telephones are monitored.

Ms. Wilson recommends in her report that the government set up a committee to provide advice on governance options and structural changes to address the culture of fear, which has "seeped down to the level of school vice-principals and principals and, in some cases, teachers."

Ms. Sandals said the option of appointing a supervisor is still "open" to her, but that is not what's needed at this time. A supervisor, she said, would strip trustees of their powers but leave the structure of the board intact while doing nothing to address management problems identified in Ms. Wilson's report.

The panel, by contrast, has a wider mandate to examine the structure of the board and to recommend governance changes, including possibly breaking it into smaller entities, Ms. Sandals said.

"Certainly, one of the things that Ms. Wilson identified was a very top-heavy [organization] where there seemed to be a distance between administrative structure and actual focus on student achievement," Ms. Sandals said. "That might involve [breaking up the TDSB]. I'm not presuming that outcome."

This is the fourth time the government has stepped in and ordered a review of the school board over the past two years.

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In December, 2012, Ms. Sandals's predecessor froze capital spending and sent in a special assistance team to help fix the board's operations. In June, 2013, Ms. Sandals appointed auditors Ernst & Young to conduct a forensic audit. And last November, Ms. Sandals intervened after tensions between education director Donna Quan and several trustees came to a head over her refusal to release her employment contract, thwarting her performance review. Ms. Quan ultimately handed over her contract to newly appointed chair Shaun Chen and agreed, under pressure from Ms. Sandals, to take a $17,000 pay cut to bring her salary of $272,000 in compliance with the province's wage-freeze legislation.

Trustees worked around the clock to meet Ms. Sandals's demands following the Wilson report, and Mr. Chen said in a statement Monday that the board will co-operate with the governance review.

"As with all ministry initiatives," he said, "we will work with TDSB stakeholders and communities to ensure that students are at the centre of any decisions."

Ms. Hall said it is important that children in Toronto have the best possible public education. "I think we have all, as a result of a number of reports over a period of time, come to have some concerns about whether that's happening today."

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