Matter of trust

NOW   Jan 17, 2008
School safety tome shockingly calls for a narrowing of trustees’ role
By Andrew Cash

If you’re a mandarin at the Toronto District School Board, the temperature may be a bit too hot this week. Julian Falconer’s exhaustive report on school safety, dropped January 10, left no stone unturned. But among all the details about sexual harassment and intimidation, the tome goes somewhat silent on one striking fact: if you’re a concerned parent and want to talk to your elected school board rep, good luck.

Fact is, our harried and elusive crew of trustees are busy doing something else a lot of the time. Why wouldn’t they be? They’re earning a poverty-line wage to oversee a multi-billion-dollar public institution – one critical to your child’s future.

Falconer recognizes this and spends time lamenting the fact that there are fewer trustees for more constituents and that the Tories chopped board members’ salaries from $48,000 to $5,000 (the Liberals restored them to $26,000). The conclusions that follow, however, are troubling. True, the report does recommend that at least the board chair be paid a full-time salary. Cool – that would allow current chair John Campbell (Etobicoke Centre) to quit his day job as VP of sales at health and beauty supplier Danna Classic.

But instead of prescribing a stepped-up trustee role and the resources to match as a way of serving constituents in these troubled times, Falconer calls for an undefined “job description’’ and a code of conduct that could result in limiting trustees’ responsibility as advocates for parents.

Specifically mentioned as no-nos for board members is involvement in schools’ discipline and operational matters, though it’s easy to wonder if trustee participation, with parents, in ironing out tensions between individual students and their schools may be a good thing.

Even more startling is Falconer’s proposal that trustees should be barred from publicly criticizing board decisions or “embarrassing or intimidating other trustees or staff of the TDSB.” Hard to imagine this flying in the old days at the board, when policy divides between left and right were a source of major huffing and puffing – and of creative tension that produced lots of innovation in local education.

Are trustees really too involved, too meddling and over-concerned to speak for parents and kids? Is the dysfunction Falconer describes really about trustees dissing other board members?

Board chair Campbell says these recommendations flow from only one source: the situation at C.W. Jefferys. “If you read the report, C.W. Jefferys was in a state of chaos before Jordan Manners was shot. Teachers did not feel supported by the administration” he says. “The general consensus was that the principal was in over her head and maybe, though I don’t know this for certain, was only there in the first place because the trustee for that ward thought she should be.”

That trustee is Stephnie Payne . She says this is all so much hearsay and scapegoating. “Teachers need to start breaking the code of silence, and if the teacher can’t work in the system, then they should try something else.”

In an interim report in August, Falconer recommended that Payne and area superintendent Verna Lister take mediation counselling to try to mend a relationship that media reports at the time called “dysfunctional.”

Payne says she refused. “I’m not going to set that kind of precedent. I’m an elected official trying to do my job.”

The question is, what is that job? And shouldn’t we be looking at widening, not narrowing it? You’d think in the current furor that there would be a call to resurrect the professionalism and effectiveness of our democratic ed reps – not to mention reinstating a pay scale to match.

“There’d be enough work to take up 200 per cent of my time [if I let it],” says St. Paul’s trustee Josh Matlow. Not only are school board wards twice the size of municipal wards, but support staff is bare-bones: $10,000 for office expenses and about 18 grand for a part-time constituency assistant.

“Between e-mails, phone calls, school council meetings, committee and regular board meetings, all the reports and documents we need to read and being visible in the community, there is much more than a full-time job,” he says.

Former Toronto-Danforth trustee Rick Telfer tells me their skimpy pay skews the demographics of the board. “It attracts either young people like me with no family obligations or big financial commitments, retirees who have some sort of pension or those rich enough to call their own shots.”

And most worrying, he says, is that trustees too often don’t have children in the system. “People with kids can’t afford to be trustees.

“In pre-amalgamation days, the pay meant that trustees could and did do the job full-time, even though at $50,000 back then it was still considered part-time,” says Annie Kidder of People for Education, a provincial parent-led public education advocacy org.

“They were very accessible, and the school board was a very available level of democracy. We hear from parents all the time that it’s hard to get in touch with their trustee.”

Add to this the sense that no one seems to know just what’s required of the people we elect to run our public schools and, well, it seems we do now have a crisis in public education.