Inside the nasty, bizarro, contemptible, gobsmackingly screwed-up soap opera that is the TDSB
In a perfect world, the Toronto District School Board would receive zero attention. Its trustees and bureaucrats would hum away quietly in the background, dutifully ensuring the safety and functionality of the city’s 589 public schools. Instead, it’s a perpetual headline generator, churning out sordid tales of dysfunction, infighting and impropriety with such regularity that it’s hard to keep up. Here’s what’s wrong, and who’s to blame.
Problem No. 1
Donna Quan nearly sparked WWIII over $17,000
The evening of Wednesday October 29 was possibly the most absurd in the history of the Toronto District School Board. The board of trustees met in camera to discuss the contract of their sole employee, Donna Quan, the director of education. Quan is the most powerful school bureaucrat in the city, responsible for educating the TDSB’s 250,000 elementary and secondary students and managing its 38,000 employees. She first took on the position in January 2013 and initially had the board’s confidence. She and Mari Rutka, the diminutive, mild-mannered, consensus-driven trustee and wife of Toronto pediatric neurosurgeon Jim Rutka, sometimes met for tea on weekends. But after Quan’s first two years on the job—a scandal-plagued stretch punctuated by allegations of fiscal mismanagement, a forensic audit, police presence at board meetings, harassment allegations against a trustee, revelations of a shady deal with a Chinese government agency—let’s just say that confidence had eroded.
The matter before the board was comically bizarre: Quan’s contract was missing. Rutka, when she’d taken over as chair of the TDSB in June, had looked in a file marked “Contract—New Director” and found it empty. She asked Quan for the contract, but Quan would not hand it over, tying up Rutka’s request in a web of procedural delays for two months. Then, in a further display of stalling, she declared in mid-August that she would not discuss the matter further without consulting her lawyer.
The contract had details worth hiding: she and the previous chair, Chris Bolton, had quietly negotiated a salary of $289,277, some $17,000 more than she was allowed under provincial wage freeze legislation. Plus, the municipal election had just taken place, and a new, less hostile board, with 11 innocent and pliable rookie trustees out of 22, would soon take over. Rutka would not be one of them. A bit of foot-dragging could only help Quan’s cause.
Quan’s contract ordeal laid bare the board’s long-standing fault lines: weary from years of squabbling, Quan’s allies felt perpetually threatened; her foes felt powerless and disrespected. The meeting started badly when long-time trustee Irene Atkinson, in a breach of standard practice for in-camera meetings, did not call on vice-chair Shaun Chen, a Scarborough trustee and Quan ally, to chair the meeting. Atkinson insisted it was a mistake, but Chen nonetheless walked out. Rutka then presented a motion to hire a lawyer in an effort to obtain Quan’s contract. Beaches–East York trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher, another Quan ally, outraged at the motion (legally, one can’t table a motion during an in-camera meeting), called the whole meeting a setup, and advised Quan to leave, which she did, accompanied by her associate director, Lou Vavougios. The place erupted in a maelstrom of yelling. Rutka attempted to continue the meeting but couldn’t be heard over the noise. Scarborough-Agincourt trustee Sam Sotiropoulos, sometimes allied with Quan but driven mostly by his low opinion of all his colleagues, arrived late, holding open the doors, annoying the trustees who asked him either to enter and close the doors, or leave. In response, he called St. Paul’s trustee Shelley Laskin a “fucking pig,” repeating it to her face: “Pig, pig, pig, pig, pig.” He then called York Centre trustee Howard Kaplan a “stupid, mindless son of a bitch.” Cary-Meagher and Toronto Centre–Rosedale trustee Sheila Ward decided to hold the chamber doors open, sabotaging the vile proceedings by putting them on display for those in the lobby. They both left, and attendance dwindled to 11 trustees, one short of quorum. Those who remained stared at each other in disbelief.
By way of explanation, Quan cryptically told reporters that “there was a process that had to be followed” for the release of her contract. The slow pace of progress benefited her. In December, when the new board of trustees was sworn in, Shaun Chen was elected chair, Sheila Cary-Meagher was elected vice-chair, and Quan finally handed over her contract. The trustees’ duty should have been a no-brainer: impose a $17,000 pay cut on Quan. Instead they ignored the law, and two written warnings from the minister of education, and approved Quan’s bloated salary. The “process” paid off handsomely.
Almost. Three days later, Education Minister Liz Sandals released a report on the inner workings of the TDSB, written by education consultant Margaret Wilson, which included a disgraceful account of the entire missing-contract dispute. Sandals then issued a laundry list of strict directives, ordering trustees to bring Quan’s salary in line or she’d put the entire school system under provincial supervision, effectively stripping trustees of their powers.
Four days after that, and nearly seven months since the contract fiasco started, Quan announced that she would accept a reduction in pay. “I don’t do this job for the money,” she said.
Problem No. 2
Trustees meddle in everything
There are no new problems at the Toronto District School Board. All the most pressing issues have been around for roughly a decade, and it’s an indictment of trustees’ leadership that so little has changed. Of the board’s 589 schools, 131 are less than 60 per cent full. Some must be shuttered for the TDSB to remain fiscally viable, but trustees won’t see to the task because school closures are political suicide. The board also faces chronic budget deficits, and trying to maintain too many schools on an inadequate budget has resulted in a rapid decaying of nearly all TDSB schools. In purely financial terms, the city’s schools are in worse shape than its social housing: the TDSB’s repair backlog, at $3 billion, is more than three times that of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. None of these matters get the attention they need from the board’s 22 elected trustees.
To grasp the reasons why, it helps to understand that the TDSB is, after Canada Post, this country’s greatest living anachronism. It is the largest school board in Canada and the fourth largest in North America, its bloating the result of the 1997 municipal amalgamations during the premiership of Mike Harris. And while schools themselves, unlike post offices, remain vital community hubs, the board of trustees that oversees them has lost its purpose.
That’s no accident. Harris’s reforms were designed to strip elected trustees of their power and make the job as unappealing as possible. The government shrank the number of trustees from 78 to 22. It also stopped the practice of school boards raising their own taxes, funding them instead according to a byzantine formula set by the Ministry of Education, and usurped their role in contract negotiations. Queen’s Park now handles curriculum development and collective bargaining, from the teachers down to the tradespeople who charge the board $143 to install a pencil sharpener—many trustees oppose that deal, but it’s not theirs to negotiate. Harris also decreed that trusteeship would henceforth be a part-time job and drastically slashed their $48,000 salaries. Trustees now receive $26,000 per year.
Yet the job of trustee remains appealing, for both budding politicians with aspirations to higher office and retirees seeking a public service swan song. The TDSB’s $3-billion annual operating budget is more than double the City of Vancouver’s. That’s a lot of coin to lord over, but it’s still insufficient. The school system is constantly under financial pressure, and the board decides on the allocations to each individual school. The fiscal dynamics pit trustees against one another and staff in a constant battle for money and resources.
Money is only one problem. Trustees have sought to expand their influence elsewhere by worming their way into the daily workings of the school system, to the dismay of the educators who run it. To give but one example: it has been standard practice for trustees to have the final say in the hiring of all school principals and vice-principals, effectively making them political appointments. The same goes for promotions to superintendent. Margaret Wilson’s investigation noted that some trustees act like “ward bosses” concerned only with hiring staff and hoarding resources for “their schools,” and others attempt to control every decision, from architectural plans for new schools to the colour of the pencils.
The TDSB, unlike most school boards in Ontario, provides each trustee an office at its North York headquarters. There are two doors leading to the offices of the board’s senior bureaucrats. Former chair Chris Bolton had one door locked last spring after receiving complaints from Donna Quan and other staff about threatening behaviour by trustees. Trustees and staff, however, just used the other one, and the door-locking plans were soon abandoned.
In January, Education Minister Liz Sandals ordered the trustees’ offices (with the exception of the chair’s office) shuttered for good. She also instructed trustees to take themselves out of the hiring process and day-to-day operations. Some commentators have argued in favour of abolishing trustees altogether. Queen’s Park will never do that, though, because trustees serve a purpose to them: it’s their duty to answer the Angry Parents’ Complaint Line—a job no one else wants.
Problem No. 3
School Principals make for bad CEOs
The TDSB has no motto, but it might as well adopt bellum domesticum, Latin for “strife in the family.” That’s how things were before Donna Quan was appointed director of education, and that’s how they have remained throughout her tenure. Quan is, by many accounts, as talented a school administrator as the TDSB has ever had in that position. The question is whether any school administrator is cut out for the job.
Quan grew up in Unionville, the daughter of immigrant parents who were entrepreneurs: they are the name behind Quan TV and Appliances, which has four locations around Toronto. Her family placed a high priority on real estate investment and education, and it was in the latter that she found her passion. She began her teaching career in 1983 on a reserve in Manitoba. She joined the TDSB in 1985 and, save for a two-year stint with the Ministry of Education, has been there ever since. She steadily rose through the ranks, from principal to superintendent, and founded one of the board’s first school-based daycares. Chris Spence, her predecessor, who resigned in disgrace amid a plagiarism scandal, promoted her to associate director.
The final step in Quan’s ascension came two years ago, in January 2013, when at age 54 she replaced Spence as director of the TDSB on an interim basis. She had an intimate knowledge of all parts of the institution and a strong reputation as an administrator. Trustees made the appointment permanent nine months later. It was the crowning moment of her career.
The pool of candidates, as usual, was not especially deep or varied. Ontario requires all the school boards’ directors of education to have at least five years of classroom teaching experience, which limits the kind of people who can be considered for the job and places undue emphasis on the wrong qualifications, especially for an organization as big and broad as the TDSB—it has 8,000 more employees than Rogers Communications.
It’s also a government relations position: the director must work closely with both city hall and Queen’s Park. It’s the kind of job that might appeal to a community-minded former executive with experience running large, board-led organizations—think John Tory were he not mayor, or outgoing Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy. Neither could be considered without special dispensation for their candidacy from the Ministry of Education, which is a rarity in Ontario.
Of course those who rise up through the teaching ranks should be considered for the job, but the job shouldn’t be reserved for them alone. In 2009, when the TDSB was searching for a new director, they interviewed former Simon Fraser University dean of education Paul Shaker, who lacked the requisite five years of teaching experience. With a sharp mind for policy, he showed tremendous potential to be a leader for the TDSB. To that point, he’d spent much of his career educating adults on how to be teachers, which gave him credibility as the system’s top educator. Shaker made it through four rounds of interviews, but the minister of education refused to allow an exemption to the requirements, and the board hired Chris Spence instead.
Spence was good at managing egos but less skilled at day-to-day operations. At board meetings, he relied heavily on his associate directors, including Quan, to answer questions from trustees. He gave trustees opportunities to ask questions outside of board meetings—he called them “fireside chats”—which made them feel important and helped build rapport. He also invited the board chair and vice-chair to sit in on key meetings previously reserved only for staff. Quan is, in many ways, Spence’s opposite: she’s adept at daily operations, a skill she demonstrated as interim director and that eventually won her the job. But she has a tendency to treat the boardroom like an unruly classroom, with her in the role of irate teacher.
I once watched her leave trustees twisting in the wind over whether or not she would enact their decision to put an inflatable dome over the Central Tech field at Harbord and Bathurst: she refused to tell them whether she would sign the papers required to execute their decision. It seemed to be a display of her willingness to antagonize trustees and disrupt the smooth conduct of board affairs, despite the fact that she had every intention of signing the approval.
Quan’s scandal-plagued reign doesn’t bode well for her future as director. Should she be replaced, the search process for her successor—unless it’s opened up to a broader range of candidates—will probably turn up more of the same.
Problem No. 4
Everyone is afraid all the time
Back in 2007, in response to the shooting death of Jordan Manners at C. W. Jefferys Collegiate, the TDSB commissioned a three-person panel chaired by the human rights lawyer Julian Falconer to study student safety in its schools. Falconer’s 2008 report was the first to use the phrase “culture of fear” to describe working conditions at the TDSB.
In the seven years since, nothing has changed. A 2013 forensic audit by Ernst and Young also identified a “culture of fear.” So did January’s report from education consultant Margaret Wilson, whose assessment was especially scathing. “The fear factor is such that many staff members avoid using the board email system,” Wilson wrote, “and many principals and superintendents now contact each other on their personal phones. They believe that board phone and email systems are regularly monitored.” Several of the staffers she spoke with broke down in tears.
Both the Ernst and Young and Wilson reports place much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of trustees, notably for their involvement in hiring practices throughout the school system, though their meddling in staff responsibilities hardly ends there: Wilson noted that trustees have been known to debate such minutiae as the kind of screw heads that should be used to affix items to school walls. But Quan is also a contributor to the fear factor: she personally reviews all reports and presentations for spelling errors before they are shown to the board or any of its committees, which makes her one of the worst delegators in recent bureaucratic history. Surely she has more important things to do.
And staff have more important things to do than worry about getting caught making spelling errors, but they’re too scared to object. The promotions process is heavily politicized—no one can rise to the highest ranks without trustees’ backing—and staff fear they’ll sabotage their careers if they say the wrong thing. With the TDSB constantly beset by warring factions, no one wants to be on the wrong side of any issue.
Problem No. 5
Whistle-blowers get ruthlessly railroaded
Amid the many sordid tales of meddlesome trustees and quivering administrators, there are times when staff speak up and when trustees, doing their jobs properly, attempt to hold staff and their board colleagues accountable. It rarely ends well.
On May 27, 2013, Vidyia Rego, the TDSB’s outgoing chief financial officer, met privately with the TDSB’s audit committee and testified to a number of irregularities. Among Rego’s concerns: the board’s procurement processes, many of them mandated by Queen’s Park, were not being followed consistently; expenses were being paid without the CFO’s review; financial reports were being sent to Queen’s Park without the CFO’s verification; and staff were withholding important information on a 2012 investigation regarding Focus on Youth, a summer employment program for at-risk students. Thousands of dollars were being spent on untendered contracts. Money was also being spent on Leafs and Raptors games. The dollar amounts have never been made public, but more disturbing than the money was the attitude: that staff and trustees could seemingly ignore the rules with impunity.
Rego, who had resigned to take a new job at Ontario’s Workplace Safety Insurance Board, planned to stay on at the TDSB for five weeks, but when Quan learned of Rego’s conversation with the audit committee, she responded by kicking Rego out of her office the next morning. Rego was escorted out of the building and told to serve the remainder of her time at home. Her expulsion, as much as her testimony, alarmed some members of the audit committee. Its chair, Scarborough trustee Elizabeth Moyer, wrote a letter to Liz Sandals noting Rego’s sudden departure. She listed many of the concerns Rego had raised, requested a forensic audit and delivered the letter to Queen’s Park.
Sandals responded by contacting Quan and informing her of its contents—what else was she supposed to do?—and Quan responded, in turn, by also requesting an audit. On June 26, Sandals announced that she had commissioned Ernst and Young to conduct a forensic audit into the workings of the TDSB. Moyer, a tall, energetic woman with long brown hair, was quoted saying she was “tickled pink” that the ministry was taking her concerns seriously.
Two days later, on June 28, Moyer made headlines of a different sort: she was being accused of workplace harassment by Jim Spyropoulos, a gregarious young executive superintendent who ran the Focus on Youth program. Moyer, according to Spyropoulos, had spoken to him about the influence wielded by the audit committee and requested jobs for her two daughters, which they received in the summer of 2012. Spyropoulos also alleged Moyer had hugged him and touched his face in an inappropriate manner. Though the alleged harassment incidents had taken place in 2011, Spyropoulos didn’t file his complaint until June 20, 2013, three weeks after Moyer delivered her letter to Liz Sandals. The allegations against Moyer were published in all the city’s major papers.
Quan then retained Janice Rubin, one of the city’s top employment lawyers, to investigate Moyer’s conduct. Moyer repeatedly asked Quan for mediation, but her requests went nowhere. Rubin concluded that Moyer had violated code of conduct and workplace harassment policies. Moyer was one of the board’s political aspirants—she’d made a previous run for city council and had designs on serving in Ottawa some day. A touch on the cheek ruined her reputation. Ernst and Young’s findings, released in a public version oddly free of names, spelled out a series of improprieties—they just so happened to be the same ones Moyer had alleged in her letter.
Ernst and Young also noted that staff reports to the TDSB’s audit committee contained insufficient detail for them to discharge their duties. This particular conclusion was concerning to North Toronto trustee Howard Goodman, a retired entrepreneur and business consultant with lots of accounting experience and time on his hands, who’d taken over Kathleen Wynne’s trustee seat when she decided to run provincially in 2003. Goodman is the kind of trustee who loiters in the offices of senior staff. One former staffer described him, using the classroom as a metaphor, as the harmless, intellectually gifted, socially grating student who doesn’t know when he’s overstayed his welcome.
Goodman and other members of the committee wanted to question Ernst and Young’s auditors about their findings. There was just one problem: accountants only answer their clients’ questions, and in this case their client was the minister of education. If Goodman wanted to speak to Ernst and Young, he’d need Liz Sandals’ permission.
What followed was a textbook case of bureaucratic stonewalling. Goodman, who had recently joined the audit committee, began to press Quan to call the initial meeting of the committee. When it didn’t happen, Quan and Goodman had a number of increasingly strident written and verbal exchanges about when the meeting would take place. The two clashed at the TDSB offices—Goodman pressed her for answers, she refused to answer them—before eventually deciding the meeting would have to wait until the new year.
Tensions between them boiled over again on January 6. Goodman went again to the TDSB executive offices and confronted Quan about the delays in calling the meeting to discuss the audit. The two moved into a vacant office, both of them remaining standing: Quan behind a desk, Goodman near the door. A frustrated, gesticulating Goodman proceeded to berate Quan. The conversation went nowhere.
The audit committee finally met in February, when it voted to write a letter requesting Sandals’ permission to interview Ernst and Young. TDSB staff, however, ruled that the audit committee could not send such a letter on its own: the letter needed the approval of the board of trustees. The letter was eventually approved and sent in April. The ministry’s June reply did not address the trustees’ request. The audit committee voted in September to send a second letter with a more pointed demand, which TDSB staff once again ruled must be approved by the board. That approval was given in October.
On November 12, police came to Goodman’s house and arrested him, charging him with forcible confinement and harassment. The charges were based, in part, on that January 6 confrontation between Goodman and Quan in the vacant office.
Neither Goodman nor Quan will comment on the charges while they’re before the courts, but Quan did address the underlying issue in general terms. “It doesn’t matter who you are, there are proper boundaries for professional conduct,” she said. “I cannot condone conduct that’s wrong. I cannot turn a blind eye to it.” She offered a procedural metaphor as justification: “Sometimes you simply have to call the question.”
Goodman’s arrest was a turning point. For a number of trustees, previous incidents were forming a pattern—Vidyia Rego sent packing, Elizabeth Moyer’s reputation tarnished, the mild-mannered Mari Rutka stonewalled to her breaking point just as Howard Goodman had been, and now Goodman under arrest—anyone who demands accountability from Quan or her staff gets obstructed. And the more they persist, the worse the consequences.
Problem No. 6
Secret agendas abound
The Confucius Institute is a program run by Hanban, the arm of the Chinese government in charge of promoting Chinese as a second language at schools and universities around the world. There are hundreds of institutes globally, and China’s master plan is to have 1,000 by 2020. In 2013, Hanban spent $278 million (U.S.) on the Confucius program. For cash-strapped universities and school systems faced with a rising demand for Chinese language instruction, the partnership is hard to resist.
However, critics of the institute see something sinister lying beneath the promotional literature. They argue that giving the Chinese government a voice in North American curriculum and staffing at institutions (they supply and pay the teachers) risks the spread of Chinese propaganda, restricts academic freedom and exposes Western institutions to espionage. Since 2013, McMaster, the University of Chicago, Penn State and Stockholm University have all shuttered their Confucius Institutes, mainly over complaints of the program’s restrictions on free speech. McMaster’s Confucius Institute became embroiled in controversy when a Hanban-hired instructor filed a human rights complaint against the university, claiming that her contract forced her to hide her belief in Falun Gong, the spiritual movement whose practice is banned in China. That incident led the Canadian Association of University Teachers to call for an end to all Confucius Institutes in this country. The American Association of University Professors has also called for the roughly 100 colleges in the United States either to renegotiate their Confucius Institute agreements or terminate them.
Chris Bolton, the TDSB’s former chair, was an early proponent of the Confucius Institute. Bolton is an ardent advocate for closer relations with China and an enthusiastic Sinophile. Last November, he posted a picture on Facebook of his cat wearing a red scarf with the caption “even our cats are respectful of China,” and via Twitter he’s accused former trustee colleagues of Sinophobia. Beginning in 2010, Bolton spearheaded negotiations on a deal with Hanban to bring Confucius to the TDSB. Trustees received a briefing note in 2010 about the general purpose of Confucius Institutes and the TDSB’s pursuit of an agreement, but it contained surprisingly few concrete facts.
The proposed deal would provide classroom programs in Chinese language and culture, as well as courses for adult learners. Two years later, in the spring of 2012, trustees learned a deal had been reached but were not given the opportunity to review the contract.
Last spring the Confucius Institute set up offices at two TDSB high schools, prompting a flood of questions from trustees and parents about the arrangement. Then, in June, days before a scheduled question-and-answer seminar for trustees on the Confucius Institute deal, Bolton abruptly resigned his seat. TDSB staff went ahead with the Q&A session and permitted trustees to submit written questions in advance. Yet they found many of the answers to their questions insufficient. They wanted to know, for instance, whether the TDSB or Confucius would hire the program’s instructors, and what penalties the TDSB would incur if it cancelled the contract, but no one seemed to know. And the man who knew the deal best, Bolton, was gone. All that trustees could do was ask staff to provide more information, then sit back and hope it arrived.
A few months later, on October 1, opponents of the deal packed the gallery of a TDSB committee meeting. Among them was a former CSIS agent who said that Confucius Institutes often serve as Chinese government spy agencies and advised trustees to nix the deal. At the close of the tempestuous meeting—the police were called when rowdy demonstrators for and against the institute gathered outside—the committee recommended that the board, at its next meeting in late October, do exactly that.
Donna Quan, who was left to clean up Bolton’s mess, responded with an email to trustees on behalf of all senior staff expressing her “extreme disappointment with the unfair, bias [sic] tone and line of questioning, and flagrant disregard for process.” In mid-October the Chinese government wrote to Quan expressing its frustration with the delays in implementing the agreement. “Given that the TDSB failed to fulfill our agreement on the Confucius Institute, the co-operation between our parties cannot proceed,” the letter said. On October 29, still without much of the information they’d requested, trustees voted to sever all ties to the Confucius Institute. The TDSB refunded the institute approximately $225,000 for office construction and administrative costs.
In January, when Liz Sandals issued her laundry list of orders to the TDSB in response to Margaret Wilson’s sweeping investigation, the Confucius fiasco figured prominently. Sandals stipulated that the audit committee must review all outstanding issues related to it and a number of other recent deals. She also touched on the many other ills at the TDSB: the culture of fear, the meddlesome trustees, Quan’s contract snafu and the general penchant for obfuscation among trustees and staff. Sandals’ expectation is that the audit committee will request whatever documents they need to perform their duties, and that Quan and her staff will provide them promptly. At press time, that process was still ongoing.
In December, when I spoke with Quan, she admitted to the need for better disclosure at the TDSB. “The more we don’t respond, the greater the desire to dig,” she said, then added, “I would like to know the answers too.” Until those answers arrive, the squalid procession of farce, soap opera and shady backroom dealings at the TDSB will continue to rival those at city hall under mayor Rob Ford.