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Toronto Toronto’s school board isn’t just troubled. It’s rotten

Neglected houses all tend to have a similar look about them. The same can be said of big, stagnant organizations.

Their physical plant is run down. Their internal politics are poisonous. Their leadership is weak and self-serving.

Mediocrity flourishes while excellence is insufficiently rewarded. As time goes by, they turn in on themselves. They lose sight of the people they serve. They defend their old ways and cling to their privileges.

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Look at our beloved Toronto Transit Commission, with its shabby subway stations and grumpy fare collectors in their little glass booths. Even a civil servant as capable and dynamic as TTC chief Andy Byford is having a hard time shaking up that public-sector brontosaurus.

Now look, if you dare, at the Toronto District School Board. This gargantuan bureaucracy, overseeing 588 schools, 247,000 students and $3-billion in annual spending, is in an ungodly mess.

Over the past few years, the board has been in the headlines for everything from financial mismanagement to feuding between staff and trustees. Police were called in to keep the peace when they met. The latest report paints a dire picture of an out-of-control organization governed by meddling trustees and dominated by a culture of fear. If you believe the report's author, educator Margaret Wilson, paranoia runs so deep that some principals use their personal e-mail and phones to avoid having their communications monitored. Even Ms. Wilson came to believe someone was listening in on her calls. Golly. Was it the North Koreans?

Some trustees have been kicking around for years, even decades. Instead of looking out for students, they have become captives of local interests, intervening to keep open schools that are half empty and taking a role in choosing principals. A few, grown far beyond their station as overseers, have become blustering, petty potentates.

Faced with a similar wreck at the New York City education department, mayor Michael Bloomberg simply took it over, in 2002, and put his own people in charge. Expect nothing so bold from the government of Ontario.

Speaking in her sternest vice-principal's voice, Education Minister Liz Sandals deplored the "dysfunction" at the board and handed it a point-by-point list of demands. But it is hard to see how measures such as cutting trustees' expenses and closing their offices at board headquarters will fix things. It is just as hard to imagine how a government that balks at breaking up a ridiculous and wholly unnecessary commercial monopoly such as the Beer Store is going to undertake a root-and-branch reform of the country's biggest school board. Yet that is what is called for – nothing less.

The problem at the TDSB goes far beyond a few trustees with swollen heads. The rot at the board is deeper than that. Teachers' unions and custodians' unions have far too much power, individual teachers and principals far too little. The dead hand of the education bureaucracy stifles innovation and creativity.

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Donna Quan, the TDSB's education director, claims that while the board's troubles may have hurt morale, rising test scores and graduation rates signal that things in the classroom are just dandy. Don't buy it.

Anyone who has seen children go through the system has encountered its quirks and its failures. Disempowered teachers struggle to control often-unruly classrooms where a couple of troublemakers can ruin the experience for everyone. People who have no business in a classroom somehow qualify as teachers and make it in front of the blackboard. Unless they commit an axe murder, it is nearly impossible to get them out the teaching ranks.

Principals stymied by rigid hiring and seniority rules scramble to put together a decent teaching staff. My own Grade 8 daughter will have had four different teachers by the end of the year.

In central Toronto at least, many schools are in wretched physical condition, with peeling paint and weed-choked yards. The board's repair and renewal backlog stands at $3-billion. Custodians at my kids' elementary school showed up to shovel and salt the sidewalk just after hundreds of students and parents slipped and slid into the school on winter mornings.

We have to do better. The TDSB is arguably the city's most important institution, with the future in its hands. Half measures, such as breaking it up into more manageable geographic parts with fewer schools in their charge won't do. A forward-thinking government would search for a top business executive or civil servant to lead it, give principals more power to choose teachers and manage budgets, and give teachers more leeway to control their pupils and lessons. In the United States, cities from Chicago to Seattle have given schools more autonomy.

Whether the board needs trustees at all is an open question. Hardly anyone votes for them. The oversight they provide might just as easily come from parent councils at the local level and the legislature at the provincial one. Queen's Park now controls the purse strings in any case.

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Ms. Wilson's "scathing" report, as news reports described it, didn't even scratch the surface of the rot at the TDSB. The organization has the feel of that neglected house. Time to gut and renovate, or just tear it down and rebuild from scratch.

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