Education Crisis in Ontario: Trustees stay on boards even after issues arise

by Debbie L. Kasman in


** This post was also published as a Letter to the Editor in The Peterborough Examiner on November 7, 2018**

There is a crisis occurring in education in Ontario.

Two different Reviews of two very high profile school boards – the Toronto DSB and the York Region DSB – pointed to a culture of fear, silence and retribution in the education system. Both also pointed to a dysfunction and deficit of leadership capacity on the administrative and elected sides of the organizations.

Margaret Wilson’s review called for a roll-back of trustee power. Suzanne Herbert and Patrick Case called for meaningful professional development in relation to trustee responsibilities and governance training so trustees would better understand and fulfill their responsibility of providing elected leadership. They found that far too many trustees “failed to demonstrate a basic understanding of their role and responsibilities as elected leaders.”

In spite of these high profile government interventions, the problems continue. We’ve now reached a crisis point in Ontario.

Seven new trustees were just elected in York Region out of twelve. The public obviously wants change, but one of the newly elected trustees is involved in a new controversy, and she hasn’t even taken office yet. Elizabeth Terrell-Tracey was elected after making comments perceived to be discriminatory and xenophobic during her campaign. She resigned three days after the election, but then changed her mind again.

In spite of mounting public concern and after exploring several options, there is nothing the school board can do to remove Terrell-Tracey from office. No such mechanisms exist. All the school board can do is strongly criticize Terrell-Tracey’s social media comments, then wait and see what happens after she takes office on December 3rd.

"The Facebook comments we have seen, regardless of context, were xenophobic, racist and hurtful," said board chair Corrie McBain in a statement to CBC earlier this week.

Louise Sirisko, the board’s director of education, said there has been a "loss of public confidence with our board" since the election, and “it deeply saddens us.”

In the Rainbow DSB, Anita Gibson - a parent – and her husband Dylan Gibson were banned from the school board’s high schools and its downtown board office for almost six years after what they say was a seemingly innocuous interaction with a now former Rainbow board trustee, Tyler Campbell.

Anita Gibson said that Trustee Campbell was "unnecessarily and overly aggressive" when he insisted she answer his questions about a personal comment she had quietly made to her husband as they exited the building after a board meeting.

The Gibsons filed a complaint with the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman and just this past September, the director of education, Norm Blaseg, admitted to the Ontario Ombudsmen that he did not follow the school board policy. He had used shaky and assumptive statements from another trustee to justify the removal of the parents from board meetings. He immediately sent a letter notifying the parents that the trespass restrictions had been removed.

In the Rainbow DSB, Trustee Larry Killens filed a complaint with the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman because the Board banned him from participating in school board meetings until November 30, 2018 when his current term is up.

Mr. Killens’ complaint relates to an in-camera board decision. He said he felt a “high level of frustration” with the situation, and felt it was his duty as a trustee to report it. He said he tried every avenue, including writing to the minister of education, before filing a complaint with the Ombudsman. Trustee Killens’ complaint is still pending.

Trustee Tom Mahoney – from the Limestone DSB – was also censured for what he believes was simply engaging with parents who had concerns that their concerns weren’t being addressed properly. Most of the complaints Trustee Mahoney was hearing were about the school board not being transparent enough. He dislikes the frequency of private session and feels muzzled by the board’s policy that does not allow trustees to make public comments. He feels that trustees shouldn’t have to get permission from the Chair of the Board in order to comment publicly because they’ve been elected, and they are all responsible.

In the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB, Trustee Gord Gilchrist made racist comments twice, once in 2008 and again in 2016, and the Board of Trustees mismanaged both situations. After making discriminatory comments against Muslims and First Nations students, Trustee Gilchrist was allowed to remain on the hiring panel for superintendents and directors. Trustee Gilchrist eventually resigned, but he ran for trustee again in the 2018 municipal election. (The Globe and Mail reported in 2008 that Trustee Gilchrist was also convicted of an income tax offence.) Trustee Gilchrist was not elected in 2018 but he garnered nearly 3500 votes.

These situations lead to many questions:

Should people who have been convicted of an income tax offense be allowed to run for public office in education?

Should people who have previously demonstrated a racist or intolerant stance be responsible for establishing school board policy direction?

Shouldn't there be a mechanism for removing public education officials from office after they've been elected?

Why are school board trustees allowed to mismanage complaints against each other and other people?

Who’s monitoring the situation?

There’s been a decision from the Ombudsman against the Rainbow DSB, and the Rainbow DSB lost. There are also ongoing hearings, communications with the Ontario College of Teachers, the processing and submitting of further complaints with the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman, and appeals submitted to various ministries.

If the Ontario government does not intervene, this wave of activity will continue, and the crisis will only escalate.

If we want to see real change, the change has to start with us.

Please email your provincial MPP and ask what the Ontario government is doing about the situation.

By remaining silent, we are part of the problem. By expressing our concerns to those in power, we become part of the solution.

Together we can make a difference.

Debbie L. Kasman

Debbie is an international educational consultant and former principal, acting interim superintendent, and student achievement officer at the Ministry of Education in Ontario.

To read other educational posts/opinions written by Debbie, see below:

  • Open Letter to Kathleen Wynne and Mitzie Hunter (2017), click here.

  • Eight Powerful Reasons Why You Should Wear a Pink Hat (and Do Other Things to Confront Gender and Racial Discrimination, click here

  • Three Hidden Ways Education Contributes to Discrimination, click here.

To read Debbie’s published articles, click here.