Thursday, August 24, 2006

Ontario Liberals on the side of bloated boards and impecunious trustees

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the news that Ontario education minister Sandra Pupatello has appointed a so-called “fact finder” to examine the operations of the Toronto District School Board. But I do know that she could save herself a lot of time and money by reading the report of auditor Lawrence “Al” Rosen, commissioned by the conservative government of Ernie Eves in 2002 to do the same job. (I also know that she and the McGuintyites have less than zero credibility when it comes to school board accountability, but more on that later.)

The report is not listed on the current education ministry website (no releases prior to the McGuinty regime are), but can be found here. The nearly 300-page report is a merciless detailing of the bloated cost structure of the board, and the defiance of its trustees against the conservative government’s attempt to implement equal funding for all students in Ontario, and amalgamation of the predecessor Metropolitan Toronto board and six lower-tier boards.

Rosen found that, despite having been handed over $900 million in transition costs to ease the amalgamation, little had been accomplished in that direction, and the lion’s share of those monies had spent outside the classroom. It was clear from the report that the board was simply waiting out the conservative regime for a provincial government that would be more indulgent of its high costs and refusal to cut programs not offered to children in other boards.

I remember reading the report in its entirety when it was released, and the resulting headache from repeated dropping of my jaw. I did not have the stomach to read it again, but here are some choice excerpts from the executive summary:

“. . . we have serious concerns that a disproportionate share of available funding dollars have been, and are being, diverted away from the classrooms. . . . Over three-quarters of the nearly $900 million that has been spent to date did not go to direct classroom activities.”

“Some TDSB Trustees do not agree that they have broad responsibilities, such as to Ontario’s taxpayers. Where economies and efficiencies exist within TDSB, they ought to be pursued. Based on the evidence that we saw, the Trustees’ voting patterns do not show a steady progression of trying to obtain efficiencies and to transition to the government’s educational definition and funding program. Meetings of the Trustees too often seem to be dysfunctional and are not focused on improving the education of students.”

“The TDSB has elected to operate a number of supplementary programs, unlike other Ontario School Boards. The Trustees, and at least some of the senior Staff, somehow continue to believe that permanent changes to existing delivery models are not necessary, because additional Provincial funding will be forthcoming.”

“Over the past four transition years, the Staff failed to identify and recommend the requisite dollars of budget efficiencies that would have enabled the TDSB to operate within its available resources. The Trustees, as a group, have demonstrated a clear reluctance to accept necessary structural changes, such as necessary school closures. Many Province-wide standards were partially or fully ignored by TDSB at the very same time that the Board was accepting and spending the transitional funding of over $900 million. In essence, the taxpayer-funded transition dollars were not used for their intended purpose.”

“given the repeated decisions of the Trustees to not provide a balanced budget for 2002-2003, we are not confident that cost savings will be approved. A deficit is contrary to the Education Act. Accordingly, we are recommending to the Minister that control and charge over the administration of the affairs of the TDSB should be vested in the Ministry . . .”

“ . . . the majority of the TDSB Trustees have simply ignored the Government’s concept of having education equality across the Province.”

“Inappropriate financial management therefore is the major reason for the deficit budget for 2002-2003.”

In the wake of Rosen’s report, and given the board’s refusal to prepare a balanced budget, the Eves government appointed former municipal councillor Paul Christie to supervise the affairs of the board. They appointed supervisors for the Hamilton and Ottawa public boards also.

Given that we are seeing the same headlines threatening pool and school closings, it is evident that, despite the efforts of Rosen and Christie, the Toronto trustees succeeded in stonewalling any real changes, while they awaited the arrival of a more compliant provincial government.

And that’s what they had every reason to expect they would get from a McGuinty government. In opposition, the McGuintyites accepted the board’s threats on their face, made common cause with defiant trustees at every turn, and condemned the supervisors as an assault on local democracy.

Throughout the 2003 election campaign the Liberals pledged to remove the supervisors and did so shortly after being elected, as shown by this release. In fact, firing the supervisors was the first act of McGuinty’s first education minister, Gerard Kennedy, and came barely a week after the new government was sworn in:

Minister of Education Gerard Kennedy announced today that supervisors are no longer in control of the Toronto, Hamilton- Wentworth and Ottawa-Carleton district school boards. The process to restore local authority is beginning immediately.

"We clearly stated during the provincial election that our goal is to ensure that important decisions about schools in Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto are made by trustees elected by the voters," said Kennedy. "They are in the best position to make the decisions needed to improve student achievement."
--Liberal government release, October 31, 2003

In addition to their pledge to let trustees run boards in defiance of provincial policies, the Liberals have overturned the Harris government’s $5,000 per year cap on trustee salaries and, even worse, are paying trustee salaries out of provincial government coffers. Not requiring public officials to pay their own salaries out of their own budgets must be some kind of new standard in violating the principles of responsible government and public accountability.

Having so publicly set a tone of “trustees can do no wrong,” the Liberals can hardly now send in a team of bean counters with slide rules and clipboards to breathe down the necks of their erstwhile comrades.

In fact, two former TDSB trustees from that era now sit in the McGuinty caucus: Donna Cansfield (who voted with the trustees who wanted to balance the budget) and Kathleen Wynne (who voted with the trustees in defiance of the government). Gosh, I wonder what they think of all this. I hope the media will call them and ask them.

In any event, it hardly matters what abuses Pupatello’s crew finds. She and her government have no credibility to confront school board mismanagement. To do so would be the political equivalent of stopping and turning an oil tanker. Some oil is going to be spilled and, judging by the history of this issue, Pupatello and McGuinty are the ones who will get dirty.

Some of my views are echoed by Eves-appointed supervisor Paul Christie in the Toronto Sun today:

Union power and extreme left-wing politics will prevent the McGuinty Liberals from solving the Toronto District School Board's emerging budget crisis, says the man who tried to fix the problem for the previous Conservative government.

“There's a delicious irony in all of this," Christie told the Toronto Sun yesterday

Former Tory education minister Elizabeth Witmer appointed Christie as supervisor in 2002 to eliminate a $90-million deficit in the TDSB budget.

Christie said he found roadblocks at every turn as he sought savings and efficiencies. CUPE held incredible power in the decision-making process at the board and fought the budget-balancing exercise, he said.

"To be incredibly insensitive and insulting, there was a time when the TDSB was the largest corporation in the world run by janitors," Christie said. "I suspect that the influence of CUPE is no less now than it was then."

The only other natural place to find savings was through "school consolidations," he said.

But parents objected vehemently to any closure, even though many downtown schools were at 60% capacity.

"They've got an infrastructure that would serve ... 100,000 more kids than they've got," Christie said.

To illustrate the last point: this summer I have regularly walked from downtown Toronto to my home in the west end, taking side streets when I can to avoid pedestrian traffic. I noticed that on almost every side street there is a public school. I consulted a city map book and found that, in the area bounded by Bathurst, Dufferin, Bloor and Queen Streets – a square measuring 2 kilometres on each side – there are 22 public schools. According to the TDSB website, 13 of these are in the public board.


SouthernTory said...

Dear Joan. There's a new post on the Parkdale/High Park bi-election
at my site. I didn't read it all, but I think your post is good.

Josef said...

Great post, Joan. What a wonderful history lesson in the melodrama.

I think you should read THIS Burlington Farm Journal editorial when you can. It's a historical editorial from a Burlington, WA, USA newspaper about the arrogance of the educational industrial complex... in 1963.

That said, it's 2006 and now that they have Sandra "Lady Churchill" Pupatello all over them as if they were Ernie Eves and Liz Witmer, I presume real accountability will be forthcoming.

After all, guess who said: “Governments are always going to be restricted by the dollars” in the 16 March 1998 The Toronto Star “Child Care Study Conclusions Face Challenge Minister Not Ready To Spend $5.3 Billion” by Laurie Monsebraaten? The Honorable Sandra Pupatello, MPP.

Best of luck and keep up the blogging.

Josef said...

Joan, what's your take now that Pupatello has been... shuffled?