You never expect school trustees to be in it for money and power. That's for big-league politicians, with their giant egos and insatiable appetites for control. School boards are supposed to be about concerned parents and citizens coming together for sake of the children.
But any journalist (including this one) who's ever been assigned to cover a municipal school board will gladly disabuse you of that wholesome notion. Instead of grassroots democracy in action, school board meetings often seem like they're taking a page from Lord of the Flies.
Petty, vindictive, crass, unsophisticated and self-interested are the descriptors that most come to mind after witnessing the antics of countless school trustees over the years. Such behaviour would be unacceptable from Grade 6 students, much less those entrusted to run their schools.
A few years ago, after a string of expense and governance scandals, the Ontario government sought to clarify in law the responsibilities of school trustees. Job 1 was to be improving student achievement. Boards had to set up audit committees to make trustees accountable for their spending. The fix was in, or so we thought.
If anything, the situation has only gotten worse. School boards may well be the lowest form of representative democracy that exists, a function of anemic voter turnout (making for easily manipulated results) and candidates driven more by revenge or ideology than better test scores.
Nowhere is this mix more toxic than at the Toronto District School Board, the country's largest, with a $3-billion budget, more than 230,000 students and 30,000-plus employees. In the latest episode of the TDSB soap opera, war has broken out between several trustees (many recently defeated in the October election) and the board's top bureaucrat over the latter's apparent refusal to (1) explain an undocumented $200,000 payment to a catering company and (2) provide the board with a copy of her employment contract, which she negotiated with the discredited ex-board chairman who resigned amid controversy in June.
The provincial government has been called upon to intervene. The police already have. Last week, they laid charges against a retiring trustee accused of forcibly confining the top bureaucrat in a meeting room. The bureaucrat is alleged to have told the trustee: "I'm going to get you. I'm going to sue you."
Being a trustee doesn't pay much – about $25,000 at the TDSB – but the job comes with a $27,000 expense account. An internal audit revealed how one trustee expensed hand lotion, another $11.30 worth of chocolate bars. One bought an iMac since she found the board-issued Dell too heavy. One trustee spent almost $4,000 to go to Israel. It apparently had something to do with prayer space for Muslims at TDSB schools. She tweeted during "the entire trip," she explained.
The last TDSB chairman resigned in June after concluding a deal with China's state-controlled Confucius Institute to set up a Mandarin language and cultural program in Toronto schools. The deal, since cancelled, was just the final straw in a series of dubious decisions by the since-departed chair.
Trustees are supposed to decide which schools to close – or, in the TDSB's case, not close. A hundred and forty of the TDSB's 600 schools are less than 60 per cent full. Unlike the board's offices, dozens of schools are in a pitiful state of disrepair. But many trustees get elected on an explicit pledge not to close schools, since that's critical to winning a coveted union endorsement.
Indeed, organized labour just had a banner election. At least 10 union-endorsed candidates won TDSB seats in the October vote, including several former staffers to New Democratic politicians. One new trustee is a particularly outspoken critic of Israel whose views are likely to create sparks at board meetings. The union-backed group ran under a banner vowing to overcome "oppression in all forms" at the TDSB.
If you're wondering why Toronto City Council is a mess, it's because many of the airheads and ideologues on council started out at the TDSB. School-board politics is often a gateway drug to higher office.
Unless things get dramatically worse, don't expect Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne or Education Minister Liz Sandals to do much to fix the dysfunction. Both women, themselves former school trustees, are wedded at the hip to the same unions that elected the new TDSB slate.
It's too bad for the kids. At least they're getting a lesson in democracy at its worst.