I was cruising around the net, as I’m apt to do these days, and came across a truly troubling article. I had heard about this idea, but this was the first time that I read a full newspaper article about it. The only thing more disconcerting than the concept – was the source of the concept.
Josh Matlow, a Toronto District School Board Trustee, and now candidate for city councillor, has put forth the idea that school boards should be swallowed up by city government. I find the timing of this idea interesting. I don’t recall hearing Mr. Matlow, or any other Trustee for that matter, thinking this was a great idea, before nominations opened up for trustees, councilors, and mayors. I also wonder if Mr. Matlow would think that the city takeover of school boards would be a good idea, if he loses on October 25th. At that point, he would be neither a trustee, nor a councillor.
School boards are actually the oldest form of democracy in Canada. In the mid-1800s, school boards were put together to administer funds to run local schools. Local taxation was held in trust, for the board to deal out as they saw fit. Teachers’ salaries, supplies, capital, etc. were all handled by the local boards.
Move forward 150 years or so, and we have quite a different situation. This may come as a shock to some readers, but the taxes that are collected on your municipal tax bill, under the heading, education, don’t exactly flow to the local school board. The province funds the board according to some interesting (for lack of a better word) formulae, and then subtracts the local taxation amounts. In other words, your local board has absolutely no say whatsoever in the amount that is charged on your tax bill. That is up to MPAC and mill rates, rather than the local board.
In addition, local boards have limited power when negotiating with the various unions that serve the students of the boards. Much of the big picture items are dealt with through the provincial offices of the unions, along with groups such as OPSBA and the province directly. Local issues are then dealt with at the local level.
So now, some would say that it’s time to get rid of school boards. They can’t tax, they can’t spend too far outside prescribed parameters, and they have limited power. All of these statements are true. But the powers that they do have flow from a local understanding of issues. Trustees are aware of how their communities and constituents feel about the issues, and what is important, and not so important to them.
I have personally had many a conversation with a neighbour at the local Tim Hortons, or in the midst of my weekly grocery shop. We’ve talked about how their school is performing, how their council in raising money, why we should open a new school, why we should close a dwindling school, and so on. Trustees are not involved in paving roads, building sidewalks, installing traffic signs, and so on. We’re specialists in education.
Matlow cites part of the reason for his suggesting that municipalities take over schools was the bickering between the school board, and the City of Toronto. Much of that was centered around swimming pools. Only in Toronto, could there be such an argument. I have a newsflash for Torontonians – the vast majority of Ontario schools do not have swimming pools! The solution to this ‘problem’ was fairly simple in my opinion. The board should have closed the pools that were underutilized and underfunded, and stuck to it. The city could have entered into a contract to operate them, if it was that important. And if it was that important, then they would have been able to justify the spending to their constituents. If it wasn’t that important – then so be it. Running a multi-billion dollar corporation comes with some decisions that require leadership, and on occasion, difficult decisions.
Another reason cited for the possible amalgamation of schools boards into municipal government is the lack of candidates for the Toronto Catholic board. It is interesting that two of the key reasons for this concept are coming from Toronto. It should not be too much of a surprise that the separate board in Toronto is having trouble attracting candidates to serve on their board. Take a look at the recent history. Trustees billing taxpayers for everything from $7500 for an MBA to rental of their homes for a school board office! It became so bad that the Ministry of Education took over the operations of the board, leaving the trustees on the outside looking in. No big surprise that no one wants to be a member of that club, now that they are under the microscope. This problem was not created by the fact that our schools are run by elected trustees. This problem was created by this particular group of trustees, who decided to act outside their jurisdiction and outside common sense and decency. Let’s not paint all school boards with a Toronto brush!
If school boards were to become just another arm of municipal government, just how would that work in an area like Simcoe County? How would it work in a board like the Near North board? Simply put – it wouldn’t. If you think that there is fighting for turf now, between trustees that represent different parts of the County, try it with reps from each municipality. As it stands right now, most of our trustees represent either more than one municipality, or a section of a municipality. Orillia and Innisfil are the only two areas that have a trustee that represent only those municipalities. The rest of us answer to either a section of, or more than one municipality. For the most part – it works. It sure as heck isn’t perfect – but it works.
The other option that has been floated about is simply the Ministry taking over control of the school boards. Another epically bad idea. The only thing worse than a municipal subcommittee trying to wrangle a decision about the future of a school, would be some bureaucrat sitting on a tenth floor office in Toronto deciding. If you think it’s difficult to get your message across right now, imagine the automated voice prompts coming your way when you call into Toronto.
All in all, school boards work. They aren’t perfect, and a few of them – most notably in Toronto – need some serious revamping. And considering that many school boards administer budgets that are many, many times larger than the municipalities that they serve, perhaps the question is, “should school boards take over municipalities?’ Now there’s a question to ponder.