No cut to essential programs at TCDSB

Catholic trustees under fire
Toronto Star May 16, 2008  Kristin Rushowy

Toronto's Catholic school board is mired in confusion after a decision not to cut programs or lay off teachers this fall, despite a $5.2 million deficit.

Some trustees say they didn't realize what they were voting for and say they took part in the discussion on layoffs, even though there was a conflict of interest.

Newly appointed trustee Rob Davis even contacted the province's education ministry yesterday about the debacle at the Toronto Catholic District School Board, which is still reeling from a report outlining several years of excessive – and unauthorized – spending by trustees.

"There are a couple of issues," Davis said of Wednesday's committee meeting, which went into the early morning hours. "I don't think the meeting was legal, and I don't think the board arrived at the decision properly … I have to confess my very first meeting as a school trustee was a disaster."

Davis and trustee John Del Grande said some of the four trustees who have relatives employed as teachers or other members of the union, declared a conflict and didn't vote on the matter, but "engaged in debate," which isn't allowed.

"I don't think it was a legitimate vote because of the lateness of the meeting, the meeting was about to expire, a lot of things were rushed, a lot of decisions made in haste and the union basically exerted undue influence on some trustees," said Del Grande.

Trustee Oliver Carroll said while some trustees did take part in discussions on layoffs despite a conflict – himself included – that the board's lawyer assured the result was valid. He said trustees who question the validity of the vote are trying to reintroduce layoffs.

Trustee Sal Piccininni also believes trustees knew what they were doing when they voted not to send out layoff notices to elementary teachers, despite a 1,300 drop in enrolment this fall.

Del Grande said by not issuing layoff notices to about 65 teachers, the board could be stuck with more teachers than it needs.

If, after retirements and leaves of absence, there are still more teachers than jobs, because of collective agreements, the board will have to carry the staff until December, Del Grande said.

"Teachers will basically be doing nothing," he said, and having them on the payroll could push the deficit up over $10 million.

Trustee Davis said that could lead to more job losses in the end.

But Anthony Bellissimo, head of Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers, said by nixing layoffs, "trustees send out a positive message to the Catholic community – they are not going to cut essential programs for our neediest students and they are going to protect teacher positions."

He said when the primary class cap of 20 students is fully implemented this fall there won't be any surplus teachers.

Meanwhile, with budget discussions dragging on, trustees did not deal with a provincial report that detailed many examples of inappropriate spending and benefits, nor did they devise a plan and timeline to fix problems.

The board has to file its budget by the end of June.

They've decided to handle the issue at a meeting next Wednesday – just hours before a deadline imposed by Education Minister Kathleen Wynne.

They did vote in favour of a "balanced" budget, but one that doesn't eliminate the huge deficit the board was supposed to eliminate as part of a three-year plan imposed by the province.

The board is continuing discussions with the ministry on carrying that forward with an eye to eliminating it by next year.

A ministry spokesperson said the board has until the end of nex Wednesday to provide the ministry with its plan, and reiterated Wynne's concerns that it doesn't appear trustees are moving forward on the issue.

Board chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller said she spoke with ministry staff "and they recognize what our schedule is like … I've been assured as long as I advise them at the end of the meeting, by email or phone, that's fine."

Piccininni, who chaired the committee meeting Wednesday, said he and his colleagues simply ran out of time.

"We will get to it next week," he said. "We'll comply with the minister's (timeline)."

Due to the report on inappropriate spending, parents are now writing Wynne asking that she fire trustees, force them to repay the money and lay criminal charges, said Murielle Boudreau of the Greater Toronto Catholic Parent Network.

"We want the minister to take over the board," she added. "The minister has to act quickly … she will have to remove these trustees. There is no credibility; everyone has lost total confidence in them."

LeBlanc-Miller said while she "appreciates the sentiment, born out of great disappointment and upset over the situation we are in, I don't think it serves the interest of the board" to have mass resignations.

Under Section 230 of the Education Act, the province can take over a school board for filing a deficit budget without permission, failing to pay debentures or loans, and for not complying with regulations governing trustee pay or expenses.

The ministry has sent a team of auditors to the board. Because of procedural rules, the issues voted on Wednesday are final. There was some controversy over the legitimacy of the vote being final because of a disagreement over the number of trustees who wanted the issues revisited.