What’s the matter with the Toronto District School Board?
Today’s revelation that the Toronto District School Board has funneled tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars into a charity founded by its own board chair is only the latest in a long series of politically damaging news stories to emerge out of the organization over the past two years. Allegations of sexual harassment, plagiarism, homophobia, bullying and inappropriate spending have dogged the school board’s 22 trustees, a collection of relatively inexperienced elected officials who seem incapable of reining in their behaviour despite repeated attempts at intervention from outside agencies.
And yet, despite all the issues in its boardroom, the school district continues to do what is, by most accounts, a decent job. Kids are still learning, and the city’s public schools continue to function, leading some to suggest that trustees are to some extent merely interfering with the work of competent school staff. How did we get to this point? Here’s a rundown of the board’s recent history of scandal.
1. Toronto’s most famous pencil sharpener
The TDSB’s spate of troubles began in June 2012, when the Star published the first in what would end up being a series of articles about massive overspending on simple maintenance tasks in Toronto schools. Among the many abuses documented by the newspaper, one became symbolic: a single pencil sharpener that the TDSB paid a union worker $143 to install at Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate in 2009. (The installation process consisted of little more than tightening some screws.) TDSB trustees eventually took steps to bring costs under control, but were stymied in January 2013 when the province suddenly renewed the school board’s contract with its skilled trades union.
2. “Frozen” (but without the cute animated snowman)
After the Star’s story had percolated down through Toronto’s political establishment, the TDSB was dealt another blow: a renovation project at Nelson Mandela Park Public school was found to be $10 million over budget. In October 2012, the province responded by freezing the school board’s capital budget, effectively preventing it from spending taxpayer dollars on building projects until Queen’s Park could be sure the money would be spent wisely. The move initially outraged some trustees. Even so, the provincial government held firm. After nine more months and three independent reviews of the board’s activities, the freeze was finally lifted.
3. Academic dishonesty
The best-known example of dysfunction at the TDSB’s upper levels was also the most sensational. In January 2013, the TDSB’s education director, Chris Spence, resigned after reporters learned of widespread plagiarism in many of his writings, including op-eds for the Star, his books and his doctoral thesis. The school board installed Donna Quan as Spence’s replacement.
4. “A culture of fear”
After Quan took over as the TDSB’s education director, she asked the province to finance yet another external review of the board’s business practices. In December 2013, the accounting firm Ernst and Young released its report. Among the findings: the school board had approved $1.3 million in unauthorized raises for senior staff over the preceding three years. Also, the auditors found that board trustees had contributed to a “culture of fear” by intimidating school staff members, who, as a result, feared speaking out about problems at the district.
5. Martial law
Intimidation continues to be a problem at the school board. Trustees are involved in staffing decisions, meaning that if they threaten to get a school administrator fired, there’s a way for them to do it. Adding to the problem is the fact that school board members tend to be political rookies, incapable of preventing their frustrations from blowing up into amazingly petty disputes.
Last week, the media learned that Quan had complained to board chair Chris Bolton about a threatening run-in with trustee Howard Goodman, who was upset with Quan over an unpaid invoice. It was only the latest in a string of similar complaints, including some relating to alleged sexual harassment of staff by trustee Elizabeth Moyer. To prevent the ugliness from escalating, last week’s meeting proceeded under police guard at Bolton’s request, and a door that separates trustees’ offices from those of staff members has been locked.