School trustees fight back

'This is just like Mike Harris,' trustee says of edict from minister to restructure school board by May
April 1, 2008    Kristin Rushowy          TORONTO STAR

Trustees for the Toronto District School Board have reacted angrily to a May deadline from Ontario's education minister to change how the board is run, and are rejecting her warning that the status quo is not an option.

"I don't think we need any change in governance," said long-time trustee Irene Atkinson at a governance committee meeting yesterday, adding the money any such changes would cost is better spent on students.

Trustees have been told they have until the end of May to make changes or Education Minister Kathleen Wynne will move ahead without them.

The board, created 10 years ago from seven Metro Toronto boards, has been criticized for being too big, too inefficient and impersonal. The Ministry of Education also says it is among the bottom five boards in terms of improvements in provincial standardized test scores, although board chair John Campbell has asked for verification of the data.

The province has provided the board two options to consider: de-amalgamation into two or four smaller boards or decentralization, with one central body and several community councils.

Yesterday, trustees outright rejected de-amalgamation and said they'd like board staff to investigate models for community councils, or how to create a board with a powerful decision-making "executive committee," as well as the status quo.

Several said they resented the province imposing a deadline, and wondered why there's a rush.

Trustee Josh Matlow said he feels it is a distraction to take attention away from inadequate funding.

Trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher, a personal friend of Wynne's, even went so far as to compare what's happening to the chaos at the board under the Mike Harris Conservative government.

"This is pushing us around, yet again," an angry Cary-Meagher told the committee meeting. "And sorry, friend she may be, this is just like Mike Harris."

In an interview yesterday, Wynne said she "categorically rejected that."

"I've been clear with the board all along that I want to work with them, I want this to be a collaborative process," she said, adding the board itself struck the governance committee a year ago.

People have been concerned about the effects of amalgamation for a decade, she said, adding she met Cary-Meagher at anti-amalgamation meetings.

"I feel strongly that it's in the best interest of kids in this city that the board work with the ministry and we come to a solution that works for everyone," Wynne said.

And, she reiterated, "to my mind the status quo is not an option."

But Cary-Meagher said changing the board at this point in time, when it is in the middle of long-range planning and searching for a new director, doesn't make sense.

Trustee Howard Goodman, who chairs the committee, said the two options presented by the province "will not achieve their stated goal of improving student performance."

And Trustee Mari Rutka wondered about the extra staff involved if community councils are implemented, with each requiring its own set of senior executives.

"I wonder why the province never allowed us this increase in staff to make the current model work?" she said.

Chair John Campbell, who was not at the meeting, said the board is still in the early stages on this issue, and "may decide on the status quo only if we can't reach agreement" on what to do."