In 2017, the Province of Ontario released the results of an investigation into the actions and behaviour of the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). The investigation was launched after numerous complaints from parents, who alleged racist attitudes among the board’s trustees. The report, once released, proved to be damning. It detailed a long list of misdeeds that truly boggle the mind. Put simply, the YRDSB’s trustees have violated the public’s trust and have done severe harm to the image of the school board.
The students served by the YRDSB represent an extremely diverse community. Almost half of all students are visible minorities; the first language of almost half of students is a language other than English (Or French). Given this context, it is absolutely critical for trustees to be extremely sensitive to all forms of discrimination, whether on racial, cultural, gender or religious grounds. The worst fears of parents, however, were proven to be completely true, with trustees feeling no sense of responsibility whatsoever to foster harmony in the school board:
A common thread throughout our discussions with Board members on these issues was a disturbing lack of accountability and a diffusion of responsibility for the situation the school board is currently facing.
Perhaps the biggest source of this problem is that trustees showed little to no understanding of their jobs:
[W]e found far too many Board members failed to demonstrate a basic understanding of their role and responsibilities as elected leaders, and the rest had varying degrees of understanding. This was particularly evident during discussions on information the Board should rely on in exercising their fiduciary responsibilities such as costs for legal fees, staff settlements, and their stewardship responsibilities for educational outcomes based on race, socio-economics, and other factors.
Why did these people seek election in the first place? Why did they seek jobs without comprehending what those jobs entailed — in other words, why did they pursue jobs when they clearly had no interest in actually doing those jobs? Why focus on petty disputes and personal advantage instead of on students and families? Well, the investigation found one possible source:
Some have suggested the divisiveness within the Board is because there were four trustees openly seeking to become candidates for other political offices, and it has been further suggested that these competing interests may lead to potential conflicts of commitment, take time and energy away from the Board, and may make it more difficult to work collaboratively.
Seeking higher office is not necessarily a bad thing for a trustee. However, it should only be done in addition to performing their work, not as a replacement. If an ordinary person were to stop doing their job while aiming for a promotion, they would likely be fired. The YRDSB’s trustees, however, seem to see themselves as exceptions to basic common sense (not to mention basic decency).
There is also the question of money. Any parent with kids in the YRDSB knows full well that funding is an issue. Some schools have trouble meeting class size requirements, while appeals for donations are essentially constant. Yet amid these difficulties, trustees utterly failed to have a basic understanding of the board’s financial situation. Part of this is due to members of the bureaucracy itself withholding vital data, but part of it seems to be a general indifference to money matters.
It’s no secret that YRDSB trustees made an obscene number of foreign trips on the taxpayer’s dime. Of course they didn’t call it foreign travel; they called it “jurisdictional learning”. Whatever the “polite” term used to describe these trips, there has still been no full accounting of how much was spent, because it was kept secret.
According to one story in the Toronto Star, the costs were astronomical:
The total cost of the 7-day trip to Finland was $21,500 and included a “formal dinner” to celebrate the “10-year anniversary of co-operation” … In September, director J. Philip Parappally travelled to Zwolle, in the Netherlands with then-chair Anna DeBartolo, and Wanda Muirhead, the board’s superintendent of business and finance, for a “professional learning session.” The six-day trip cost taxpayers $8,620, according to documents.
That’s over $30,000 on just two trips — and they took multiple trips. They did this at a time when teachers are spending their own money on classroom supplies, and while parents across the board are living paycheque to paycheque while donating what they can to their local school above their regular taxes.
In theory, all spending, including on “jurisdictional learning” trips overseas, needs to be justified and approved. Best-case scenario, all such spending should be revealed to the public, with reports on all benefits and “learning” from such trips. However the trustees clearly believed they were accountable to no one, needed to justify nothing, and felt perfectly happy to hide all spending — even documents released through freedom of information applications were heavily redacted, like top-secret papers from a spy agency.
It gets worse.
A vital aspect of school board governance is consultation with the community. There are many groups that exist solely to advise trustees on concerns and issues vital to the board. However instead of respecting that input, trustees routinely ignored or, worse, sneered at these groups:
We were concerned by repeated accounts from community members of the advisory committees feeling “disrespected” and “talked down to” by staff and trustees … a community member had to ask the director of education to watch his tone and communicate with civility and respect. We were told that 12 Ontario Education Services Corporation. (2014). Good Governance: A Guide for Trustees, School Boards, Directors of Education and Communities. 9 the school board representatives, including trustees, are defensive and oppositional and that requests for information are either ignored or delayed.
The report goes on, explaining in great detail just how severely our current trustees have not only failed in performing their duties, they have actively done the opposite of what they should have done. They have shown a consistent lack of respect for their office, their constituents and their own dignity.
It’s time for fresh blood and a fresh outlook — it’s time for a fresh start.