Elected to do Mostly Nothing

Queen's Park

A couple of articles and opinion pieces have hit the local paper here yesterday, asking the question of whether we need school board trustees at all. Even the chair of the Catholic school board in Waterloo Region has called her position “obsolete”. Would it not be better if the trustee elections were abolished and the positions appointed by local councils, as is currently the case for local libraries, police services boards and transit commissions?

This is a question that has been years in coming, started soon after Mike Harris took office as Ontario’s premier. In his first years of slash and burn spending, he took an absolutely vindictive position with regard to the school boards. Trustee pay was slashed to a paltry $5000 per year. And when the “Who Does What” commission, led by former Toronto Mayor and Conservative MP David Crombie, came out with its recommendations to simplify the complicated power arrangements between municipalities and the province, the province took that as an excuse to assume almost complete control over education funding, while downloading social services (welfare) costs onto the cities — a move that Crombie said was the exact reverse of his recommendations.

Today, the McGuinty Liberals have given the impression that they intend to right this wrong, increasing trustee pay based on recommendations from local advisory committees. Our eleven public sector trustees could soon earn as much as $14,295 a year while our nine Catholic school board trustees could earn $10,287. The pay for these trustees before the Harris cuts in 1996 were $13,800 and $10,000 per year respectively.

But the problem with Harris’ actions is that they did not go far enough. As he reduced trustee pay to insulting levels, he also reduced their power. Trustees can no longer raise (or lower) taxes, that’s determined by the province. Trustees cannot decide whether to close schools, open new ones or build an addition; again, the province has final say in that matter. They have no control over how many children are in each classroom, or setting teacher preparation time. The money they receive from the province is strictly controlled and funds from one area (like textbooks) cannot be siphoned off to pay for other priorities (like library books). Locally, the Waterloo Catholic Board handles a $200 million budget. Catholic board trustees only have control over just $2.8 million of that.

In short, Harris nearly eliminated trustee pay and trustee responsibility, to the point of nearly eliminating the trustees themselves — except that he didn’t take that final step. I suspect this is because by leaving the trustees behind as shells of themselves, he left behind a convenient fall-guy to face voter anger when flaws to the provincial funding formula resulted in deficits in certain jurisdictions, closed schools, out-of-date textbooks, and increased classroom sizes. $5000 per year per person is pretty good value for a set of patsies.

With this in mind, is it any wonder that the Toronto District School Board threw up its hands and refused to balance its budget during the final years of the Harris/Eves government, forcing the government to take over operation of the school board and make the cuts themselves (discovering to their chagrin that the books couldn’t be balanced by the end of the year)? With trustees powerless to do anything except take the blame for the government’s cuts, why do the government’s dirty work for them?

And while McGuinty has made reinvestment in education a priority, the flawed system remains unchanged. The current Minister of Education, Kathleen Wynne, was a part of the Toronto Board of Education that defied the Harris Government. She now faces down similar challenges by the Peel Region School Board (which now finds itself with a $60 million deficit) and (again) the Toronto District School Board. She has tried to convey conciliatory tones, and legitimately doesn’t have the money to address Toronto and Peel’s concerns, but the problem here is not money: it’s power versus the appearance of responsibility. Since the province remains in control of the education system in all but name, some Peel trustees probably reason: why not force the province to take control of education in name?

And this ultimately might be the best move the provincial government can make. If the Liberals are serious about improving provincial education standards, let’s remove the middlemen. Let’s stop wasting money on trustees elected to do mostly nothing and put it to education. And let’s make sure the responsibility and the appearance of responsibility rests with the government that has the real power, here: the province of Ontario. In short, let us be honest about how we are governed in education.

And, while you’re at it, why not abolish regressive education property taxes throughout the province, and pay for our education system from our income taxes?

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