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Editorials Multiplying and dividing at the Toronto school board

Minister of Education Liz Sandals, left, along with lead investigative reviewer into the trustee and staff at the Toronto District School Board, Margaret Wilson, hold a press conference regarding their recommendations from their report at Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday, January 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

'Culture of fear" is a phrase that invokes Stalin's purges, rather than staffing practices and human-resources management at a Canadian school board. Even so, a report commissioned by the Ontario government affirms previous assertions that people at the Toronto District School Board, the country's largest, feel there really is such a culture at the TDSB.

The proverb "Too many cooks spoil the broth" expresses the TDSB's problem better than any claim of a reign of terror.

The provincial Education Act makes the "director of education" – currently, Donna Quan – into the head of a large regional school-teaching bureaucracy. She's basically the equivalent of a CEO. The elected trustees are not supposed to micromanage, or take part in detailed day-to-day decisions.

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Rather, the board's work is to supervise, set general policies, do multi-year planning, and hire and evaluate the director of education. The trustees, however, being elected, naturally tend to act like retail politicians, even though they each get only an "honorarium" of $25,000, and $27,000 for contract staffers. They seem a bit like members of the U.S. House of Representatives – politicians in a very loose party system.

Lately, they have been getting involved in the details of hiring and promotion, and in difficult real-estate decisions – the result of the continually shifting demographics of primary and high-school populations. Trustees, the administrators, principals and parents have been getting in each other's hair, standing on each other's shoes and sometimes driving themselves a bit crazy.

It didn't help that the previous director, Chris Spence, who had more charisma than skills, was revealed as a plagiarist and had to resign, but that is now two years ago.

This whole model for a big-city school system looks to be essentially flawed. The combination of provincial oversight, elected trustees and professional managers has led to a state of overmanagement and underperformance. To start with, the provincial government must insist that the trustees do only what they are intended to do. And for board employees, they should lower their anxiety levels.

Editor's note: A previous version of this editorial said incorrectly that Toronto District School Board trustees each have three constituency assistants. In fact, the trustees share three staff assistants, but each trustee has $27,000 with which he or she can pay contract constituency assistants.

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