Spending by trustees at Catholic board spurs audit

JAMES RUSK Globe and Mail   May 8, 2008

In the wake of a scathing report about excessive spending by trustees of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, the province moved quickly yesterday to order in an auditor to examine trustee expense claims for the past five years.

The report found that the trustees have voted themselves the richest package of benefits of any school board in the province, sometimes giving themselves benefits and services not permitted by the Education Act or even paying personal expenses not related to being a trustee.

"What appears to have been questionable or inappropriate use of public funds by some trustees has significantly strained trust – not only between trustees and their constituents, but also … among trustees themselves," concludes the report by former public servant Norbert Hartmann.

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne, who gave the board two weeks to come up with a timetable for making changes to its expense policies, said in an interview that "I am prepared to act immediately and really demonstrate that we have no tolerance for this activity."

Overall, Mr. Hartmann found that average trustee costs at the board, which has more than 90,000 students in 201 schools, were $107,218 in 2007-2008. That was $40,000 more than the next highest-spending board in Ontario, and more than 2.5 times what it was in 2003-2004.

Among his specific conclusions, Mr. Hartmann found that:

While the province gives the board $400,000 to pay for trustee costs, they actually cost the board $1,286,614, which means that nearly $900,000 is taken out of other funds to pay trustee expenses;

The trustees give themselves medical, dental and life insurance coverage and an annual $8,604 car allowance, even though there is no legal authority to permit either benefit;

Trustees with surpluses in their discretionary spending accounts have been transferring them to schools of their own choice, or to charitable organizations and sports groups, neither of which appears to be legal under the Education Act;

When they leave office, trustees have been allowed to keep equipment, such as cellphones, fax machines, filing cabinets and digital cameras, which has been purchased for them;

Spending on promotional materials such as pens, fridge magnets, calendars and the like is "relatively high," and there was a significant hike in such spending in 2005-2006, which was an election year.

Board chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller said in an interview that the board would work with the minister and Education Ministry staff to meet the timetable for the implementation of Mr. Hartmann's recommendations.

When asked if there was anything in his report that surprised her, she said that, while the individual items were not unexpected, "the surprise was seeing the whole of it."

Former chair Oliver Carroll, who was at the helm for four of the years covered by the report, said, while there are a few things he would quibble with, "I think it is very fair."

He said the spending pattern was the result of a decision by the board to let each trustee operate alone to use their allocated funds and to keep the spending secret.