Board takeover

Province takes over Catholic school board
Toronto Star June 5, 2008 Kristin Rushowy & Louise Brown

In the end, it was too little too late to save Toronto Catholic trustees from a provincial takeover.

They said they balanced the budget at midnight Monday, but an investigator found they fell $5 million to $12 million short of the mark.

They voted to "end" spending abuses, such as illegal health benefits and a car allowance, then decided to keep them for one more month.

And when the investigator blasted trustees for their "toxic" relationship with staff and their refusal to meet budget targets three years running and their "very casual approach to compliance with the Education Act," it all failed to restore the government's faith in Ontario's largest Catholic school board.

In one swift move yesterday morning, Education Minister Kathleen Wynne stripped Toronto Catholic District School Board trustees of their power.

"I didn't think there was any point in dragging this out, because the investigator's report confirmed my concerns, so I acted," she said after receiving Pierre Filiatrault's report Tuesday night, which recommended the province take over the board's financial reins.

Supervisor Norbert Hartmann will begin his $190,000-a-year job "immediately," Wynne said yesterday, adding she did not know how long he'll be in charge.

Hartmann is the veteran education official who last month issued a damning report on trustee spending abuses at the board, uncovering alcohol, vacations – even ice cream at the Dairy Queen in Woodbridge – all charged to the public purse. The province has since sent in forensic accountants to uncover fraud and any dubious claims that need to be repaid.

Board Chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller said she was not surprised by the takeover, but disagrees with the investigator's charge trustees scrambled to balance the books Monday in haste without really understanding what they were doing.

"Yes we were voting on cuts until 12:10 in the morning, but many of those items had been discussed over recent weeks and months and we had received staff input on them, so they were not out of thin air," she said from her office at board headquarters, which she's allowed to keep using.

Wynne said yesterday she had not made up her mind before reading Filiatrault's report – nor was this a "hostile takeover." But she noted last-ditch attempts by trustees to balance the books at four meetings in one week failed to impress her.

"In the final moments before the investigator's report came out, I think trustees understood that something that might happen that would remove their decision-making authority," she said. "For me, that's not good enough. I was looking for those behaviours a month ago. It was just too late."

The board has been "struggling with the task of balancing its budget since 2004-05 and, despite having a three-year deficit management plan, has failed to meet budget targets every year since," the report says.

And while the board pegged its deficit at $14 million last month, it was closer to $17 to $21 million, said the report – and possibly higher. Too, Filiatrault questions the near $14 million in cuts trustees believed they passed Monday, saying the savings are only about $9 million.

However, because the board has not officially submitted a budget, decisions about cuts made Monday night – including laying off teachers Jan. 1 – will come under review.

Wynne said it will be up to Hartmann, who is not doing interviews, to freeze trustee expense accounts. She also said "there has to be clear communication with the community" on what's happening at the board.While she's not asking trustees to resign, she said "their authority is severely diminished."

Anthony Bellissimo, head of Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers, said he was encouraged the ministry has indicated it will protect the best interest of students. He hopes that will mean no layoffs –as it stands now, 85 pink slips will go out in the fall, a move even board staff said would be disruptive.

Trustee Maria Rizzo had begged Wynne in an open letter recently to take the board over and "save us from ourselves," but said yesterday she was furious Hartmann will control virtually all decisions.

"This is more like a dictatorship rather than co-operation," said Rizzo, who disagreed with the report's claim that trustees "micromanage" the board, in part, by sitting in on job interviews with principals, insisting "it's my job to make sure they're assigned to the right schools and it's my job to represent the interests of parents."

The report also slams unnamed trustees for "attempting to spend their discretionary expense budgets" before policy changes were implemented.

LeBlanc-Miller said while she was upset to learn of the takeover, a meeting with Hartmann and two phone calls with Wynne assured her trustees still will be a bridge between the community and the supervisors.

"The minister reaffirmed we are in this together and while we may not agree on everything, the fact is the public needs to be assured that something is being done."

Parent Murielle Boudreau, head of the Greater Toronto Catholic Parent Network, called yesterday "a sad day for Catholic education in Toronto even though it's ridiculous what's been going on with trustees.

"Given the system is already under attack after last year's provincial election, this bad publicity makes me worried about the future of Catholic education in Ontario."

 HOW IT'LL WORK

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne yesterday appointed supervisor Norbert Hartmann and associate supervisor Norm Forma to take control of the Toronto Catholic District School Board. , Here are some answers about how it will work:

How long will the supervisor and associate stay?
Wynne says they will stay until they get the board's finances "back on track" and restore public confidence, but she cannot predict how long this will take. In other boards, supervisors have taken between 10 and 16 months to balance the books.

Will trustees remain in office?

Yes, they will remain trustees and continue to earn their $18,000 honorarium, but will not have access to their $18,000 discretionary fund.

What can they do?

Trustees will still meet with the public, still officiate at graduation ceremonies and fun fairs and celebrations.
Trustees can also pass on concerns from the public to the supervisor.

Will there be meetings?
Not in the near future; Hartmann has cancelled public meetings until further notice, starting with last night's scheduled meeting of the administrative and corporate services committee.

But trustees still can serve on expulsion and suspension hearings and on the board's Special Education Advisory Committee.

Can trustees still make public statements?
Not with the help of board communications staff. They may use their board email accounts, but may not even use board photocopy machines.

How much will the supervisors cost?

Hartmann's salary is $190,000 a year, and part-time adviser Forma, former director of the board in the late 1990s, will earn $1,200 a day.

When supervisor Paul Christie took over the Toronto District School Board in 2002 to balance the books, it cost taxpayers more than $1 million over 15 months between Christie, his adviser Don McVicar, a communications adviser and a secretary, along with legal costs and other professional fees.