An embattled Toronto District School Board faced a supportive crowd Monday as speakers at a public meeting largely rejected a recent report's recommendations to scale back trustees' powers and reduce the number of schools with low enrolment.
The board called the special meeting to invite public input on the scathing report by government-appointed education consultant Margaret Wilson. She identified many problems with the TDSB, including trustees interfering with the board's day-to-day operations; a "culture of fear," with many employees fearing their phone calls and e-mails are monitored; and a lack of constraints on trustees involving the board in "pet projects."
Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals has given the board until Feb. 13 to make changes, including cutting education director Donna Quan's salary by $17,000, to $272,000, in compliance with the province's wage-freeze legislation; developing policies clearly outlining the roles and responsibilities of the chair, trustees and senior staff; and closing trustees' offices at the school board's headquarters, with the exception of the chair. (Ms. Quan has accepted her pay cut.)
But many of the 42 individuals who addressed the board focused instead on Ms. Sandals's directive to the board to devise a three-year capital plan that addresses how to reduce underutilized spaces.
"We are concerned that in the implementation of this directive, a large number of schools could be closed without adequate consideration of the impact on students, their families and the community at large," said Winston Tinglin, interim executive director of not-for-profit Social Planning Toronto. "Schools have huge potential to become a hub for the community and deliver a broad range of benefits."
Ms. Wilson's report identified 76 elementary schools and 55 secondary schools at 59-per-cent capacity or less.
Mr. Tinglin suggested expanding the role of underutilized school spaces, which the ministry defined as having less than 65-per-cent capacity, to provide daycare programs, recreation and other community services.
A community resident who campaigned to block the sale of a TDSB-owned park in North York said Bannockburn Park was declared surplus space by the TDSB without proper consultation with constituents, even though it is regularly used by hundreds of children for baseball and soccer.
"If the TDSB continues to sever and sell properties for development, then it will be a huge issue for other wards as well," Alyssa Berenstein said. The case is currently before the Ontario Municipal Board.
Trustees also heard supportive comments from teachers' union representatives, parents and other community organizations that opposed reducing powers for elected trustees, such as blocking individual trustees from decisions around promotions for staff at all levels.
Derik Chica of the Latin American Education Network said electing trustees is a way for marginalized communities to play a role in influencing their own education.
"Removing or reducing the impact of a democratically elected position is silencing the many voices that would not otherwise be heard in the system," he said.
TDSB vice-chair Sheila Cary-Meagher said, "I would have hoped that somebody would say these things."
She said she's unsure whether the public comments will change the province's position but it will be "well-nigh impossible" for the board to meet all the directives by Feb. 13. "Parents value their trustees because they're the only way of getting past bureaucratic blocks," Ms. Cary-Meagher said, adding that the board's Model Schools for Inner Cities initiative wouldn't have existed without her taking lead of the project.
"The minute that political hand leaves an idea and it goes into the bureaucracy, the passion is dissipated and the programs almost always die," she said.
Newly elected chair Shaun Chen said , "The public has spoken and they've talked about the need for trustees as advocates." He saidhe hopes the ministry understands that trustees are democratically elected and must listen to their constituents.
"At the same time, we have a legal direction from the ministry that is very clear. There has to be a balanced approach."
Mr. Chen, who recently won the federal Liberal nomination in Scarborough North, revealed to reporters during a break that he will resign as chair once the timing of the election is clear.