Public debate & cost analysis first!

Toronto Star Editorial –  April 03, 2008
Move cautiously on school board

Ten years after Mike Harris's Conservative government created the Toronto public school board by amalgamating seven smaller boards, few would argue it is working well.

Peddled at the time as a way to cut costs and rationalize operations, the amalgamated board has lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis and has long been criticized for being top-heavy, overly bureaucratic and not responsive enough to the needs of local communities. Education ministry officials have also raised concerns that the board – Canada's largest with some 270,000 students – ranks among the bottom five in the province when it comes to improvements in provincial test scores.

So Education Minister Kathleen Wynne has given Toronto trustees until the end of May to recommend changes to the board's structure. Wynne, who opposed amalgamation as a parent activist, says she wants the governance review "to be a collaborative process," but she has made it clear she will forge ahead with or without trustees onside. "The status quo is not an option," says Wynne.

That isn't sitting well with many trustees. At a meeting this week of the board's governance review committee, Trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher, a friend of Wynne's, said the Liberal government's approach to the governance discussion "is just like Mike Harris."

The committee is already signalling it won't be pushed around. The province had suggested trustees mull over two options: some form of decentralization, with a central board and several community councils, or breaking up the mega-board altogether.

At this week's meeting, the committee rejected de-amalgamation outright. Instead, trustees asked board staff to investigate three possibilities: decentralization, empowering an "executive committee" to make key decisions, and, in defiance of Wynne, the status quo.

Obviously, some trustees and educrats have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. But caution is warranted, given that chaos could accompany de-amalgamation. Before Queen's Park moves in this direction, a substantial cost-benefit analysis is required as well as a public debate.

It has been argued that the Toronto public board is far bigger than the optimal size, whatever that is. But what evidence exists that breaking the board up into smaller pieces would raise test scores or improve the quality of classroom education?

It is incumbent on the province to answer these questions before it goes further down this road.