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Ontario to audit school board over financial management concerns

Education Minister Liz Sandals speaks during question period at Queen's Park in Toronto on March 4, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government will investigate the "financial management practices" at Canada's largest school board after concerns were raised by the Toronto District School Board's acting director of education.

The period being investigated is between September, 2009, and June, 2013, and covers the director of education's office, salary increases, expense reviews and the Focus on Youth program. This period covers the directorship of Chris Spence who resigned this year amid allegations of plagiarism, as well as the current administration.

Education Minister Liz Sandals said in a statement that acting TDSB director Donna Quan and the chair of the audit committee "identified a number of concerns, including the availability of reports to the audit committee, financial reporting to the ministry that may not have been approved by the chief financial officer, salary increases for staff that may not be in line with broader public sector compensation, and expenses paid without proper review by the chief financial officer."

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"We have asked Ernst & Young LLP to conduct a forensic audit of the school board," Ms. Sandals said in the statement.

Later at a news conference at Queen's Park, Ms. Sandals said there were many questions to be answered.

"Were expenses being appropriately approved? Were reports being submitted to the ministry [for] appropriate oversight? So there was range of what I would call financial management issues."

She said the investigation is not about a particular individual, but that it's more about the board's financial management in general. The audit will not affect either the board's budget for this year, which was balanced, or its capital plan. A report is expected by the end of September.

Elizabeth Moyer, a trustee who chairs the board's audit committee, said the committee raised concerns to senior management after not receiving specific audit reports from staff.

"I'm sure that the majority of the audit committee feel vindicated by this letter because we have similar concerns," she said. "At the end of the day, what my hope is, is that we, the Toronto District School Board, is spending money … in the proper ways."

Ms. Moyer is facing allegations that she is in a conflict of interest in her role as audit committee chair. The Focus on Youth program for at-risk youth is one of the initiatives being investigated. Ms. Moyer confirmed Wednesday her daughters worked for the program in 2012. They were not hired back for 2013.

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Ms. Moyer said that a committee member had threatened to release information about the alleged conflict if she took her audit concerns to the province.

"First of all, I was told three weeks ago that if I went to the ministry with these audit concerns that this would come out. So I had to let my daughters know," Ms. Moyer said.

Ms. Moyer said she is currently seeking legal counsel over the conflict-of-interest allegations.

When asked whether her daughters met the criteria for the program, Ms. Moyer said, "I've known other children working for the program and their parents are working for the board."

Ms. Quan said she was confident that the program criteria were met by all students hired.

Salary increases were among other concerns that led to the province's audit. At a scrum outside the TDSB Wednesday Ms. Quan suggested, "we ought to be taking a look at guidelines that make sure that the senior team organizational structure did not violate any of [the Public Sector employee] guidelines."

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Trustee Howard Kaplan, a member of the board's audit committee, said he believes there is nothing amiss with the pay raises.

"I'm sure that any pay increases or pay adjustments are done according the structure the board has approved," he said.

It has been a difficult year for the TDSB. Canada's largest school board has faced widespread criticism for the way it spends on construction projects, and a $10-million budget overrun at Nelson Mandela Park Public School prompted the Ontario government to cut off funding for new TDSB building projects in October.

The construction freeze has put a stop to expansion at some of the city's most crowded schools. Mr. Kaplan said the freeze will leave these schools crowded and "this is something the children will pay for."

Taking issue with the suggestion at the news conference that money has been misused, Ms. Quan said, "This isn't about money being squandered."

"This is about process and how we report on the use of funds – procurement. How we engage stakeholders and how those funds are used," she said.

"If I didn't act upon it, I would be complicit."

When asked in an interview about the provincial audit, TDSB Trustee and audit committee member Sam Sotiropoulos said he was taken aback by the new information. "I find it not only strange but troublesome to have such innuendoes cast about," he said.

However, he did also note that if the acting director or the chair of the audit committee "believe a forensic audit is necessary to either clear the air or to bring any malfeasance to light, then they should go forward with it as quickly as possible."

With a report from Adrian Morrow

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Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More


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