Hall report on TDSB governance

Hall report on TDSB governance

pic Fred LumThe Toronto District School Board should be placed under provincial supervision and then broken up if it can’t improve serious cultural problems after a year, former mayor Barbara Hall recommended in an advisory report.

The board, Canada’s largest, can’t help itself without “external support,” Ms. Hall wrote in her report to the province, which was released Friday.

The TDSB, a product of the amalgamation of seven boards in 1998, has an annual operating budget of $3-billion and more than 246,000 students in 600 schools.

The ministry formally released the report just after 8 p.m. Friday, saying it had accidentally been posted earlier in error and the ministry had decided to allow its release “in the interest of being open and transparent.”

The Ministry of Education should appoint an adviser, Ms. Hall recommended. If the board doesn’t show “demonstrable progress” within a year, it should be divided into smaller boards using “ward boundaries, socioeconomic and ethno-racial factors, enrolment and geographic size” as a guide.

The panel also broached the possibility of introducing term limits for trustees.

TDSB Chair Robin Pilkey, an accountant, balked at the suggestion of breaking up the board. “The cost would be unreasonable,” she said in an interview.

Some of the concerns in the report seem left over from previous eras at the board, she said. Half of the 22 trustees are brand-new, elected last fall, including Ms. Pilkey.

“The whole thing is, I think, living in the past,” she said. “You have to think about when they did those interviews, the climate. A lot of things have changed in the last six months, I think. So I think we have to take it with a grain of salt and take some time to absorb it.”

Ms. Hall’s 20 recommendations don’t seem to demand “immediate” action, so trustees will begin reviewing them carefully, including cost implications, said Ms. Pilkey.

The former mayor was appointed last March, along with a panel of education and governance experts in Ontario, to examine major structural problems at the root of the TDSB’s history of scandals and complaints from parents, trustees and staff. The panel interviewed more than 550 people, she wrote.

In a statement, Education Minister Liz Sandals said the ministry will release its next steps in the coming days.

“By working together with the TDSB, we will be able to improve governance at the board, and ensure that everyone is focused on student achievement and well-being.”

The panel confirmed what other audits and reviews before it have also suggested – that a “culture of fear” permeates the highest levels of the bureaucracy. It describes how several staffers refused to meet with the panel, explaining that they were concerned that their participation would affect their career advancement. Several who did participate broke out into tears, the report said.

The problems are affecting not only board staff but students, “perpetuating inequities,” the panel found after looking at student achievement data.

“We heard serious concerns about the inequities of access to specialty programs and the lack of resources in schools to support the specific needs of communities,” Ms. Hall wrote.

Last month, former TDSB director Donna Quan stepped down after a rocky tenure. But Ms. Hall wrote that the board’s problems can’t be blamed on any individual.

“It is our view that this culture has developed over many years and under the watch of several directors, board chairs and senior administrators,” said the report.

The past two years have been especially tumultuous for the board: The former chair, ‎Chris Bolton, called in off-duty police officers in March 2014 to control what he called “threatening” behaviour at board meetings; four months later, he suddenly resigned, citing “personal reasons.”

His resignation followed a Globe and Mail report that showed TDSB staff had investigated Mr. Bolton, for allegedly improperly diverting a donation – that was supposed to go to an elementary school – to a charity that Mr. Bolton founded.

Tensions at the board peaked in late 2014 when Mr. Bolton’s replacement as chair, Mari Rutka, wrote to Education Minister Liz Sandals, complaining that Ms. Quan was refusing to provide trustees with a copy of her contract.

The episode led Ms. Sandals to appoint a special investigator, education specialist Margaret Wilson, to review the board. Ms. Wilson’s report paved the way for the comprehensive review conducted by Ms. Hall and the other panel members.

Some of the staff interviewed for the report linked the board’s “dysfunctional culture … to a sense of entitlement and domination that can come with being in the [trustee] position for many years.”

Board staff and trustees told the panel that the board had been effectively divided into an “in-group” and an “out-group” – with the latter being deprived of information necessary to perform their roles.

“Senior staff also noted how information is used by the director and senior administration in a way that favours those who are in the in-group and marginalizes those who are in the out-group. That in-groups and out-groups are perceived to exist within senior administration and elected leadership speaks to the extent of the unhealthy and divisive culture at the TDSB.‎”‎