Counterpoint: Ontario experience provides ample rationale for axing school boards in Nova Scotia

by Debbie L. Kasman in


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** A similar version of this post was published as an Opinion piece in The Chronicle Herald in February, 2018**

With all due respect to former Education Minister Marilyn More who wrote, “The Glaze report does not offer evidence to justify the extreme leap to disbanding elected school boards,” (Opinion: Canning school boards will have unintended consequences), there is more than enough evidence to justify the move. One need only look as far as Ontario to see why the recommendation is spot on.

In 2015, the Toronto District School Board was almost paralyzed by constant scandals involving trustees and senior staff. During a two-year period, there were allegations of fiscal mismanagement, a forensic audit, police presence at board meetings, harassment allegations against a trustee, breach of standard practice, yelling matches, and revelations of a shady deal with a Chinese government agency.

Education Minister Liz Sandals ordered a review of the board and placed Margaret Wilson, a former registrar at the Ontario College of Teachers, in charge. In her report, Wilson wrote, “Cooperation between trustees is too often focused on making deals for mutual support. The level of trust between the senior administration and the trustees is low…there has, to date, been no attempt to review the Board’s governance model to remove the trustees from day-to-day operational decision making and to prevent interference on the part of many trustees, in the operation of ‘their schools in their wards.’”

Additionally, a trustee got into trouble in 2016 in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board when he allegedly made remarks about First Nations students during the Grand Opening of a new high school. Two students overhead the 87 year old trustee say, “How much would it take for you guys to go over there and tell them there’s more to music than banging on a drum and yelling,” and “I wouldn’t have been so eager to take over this country if I’d known that was the kind of music they played here.  I don’t feel so bad that we took over their country.”

The director hired an impartial third party investigator to investigate the allegations made by the students, and the investigator concluded that given the balance of probability the assertions the students made about the trustee were substantiated. The Board censured the trustee and removed him from the expulsions committee, but the Board did not remove him from any other committees. The trustee was allowed to continue to serve on the program committee and the committee responsible for the hiring and promotion of superintendents.

This was a huge mistake because first of all, trustees aren’t supposed to have this level of involvement in day-to-day operations, and second because trustees were about to hire a new superintendent to support the implementation of the First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework. What if someone from a First Nations Community were to apply for the position? What if a Muslim candidate applied? The same trustee had written a letter to the local newspaper in 2008 that many people deemed to be racist. (The Globe and Mail also reported the trustee had been charged with an income tax offense.) 

Furthermore, in 2017, the Minister of Education ordered a second review, this time of the York Region District School Board after two high-profile incidents of racism and Islamophobia were mishandled. In one of the incidents, a school board trustee had used a racial slur when referring to a black parent. In the other, a principal posted offensive material on Islam and refugees to her Facebook page.

Patrick Case, a law professor and former school board trustee, and Suzanne Herbert, a former deputy minister in Ontario, were tasked with completing this review. In their report, Case and Herbert described a “disturbing lack of accountability and diffusion of responsibility” among school trustees, and they denounced the board’s inaction and failure to respond to both incidents. They 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 degree of understanding.”

The problem was so severe that the Ministry of Education created an Education Equity Secretariat and an Education Equity Action Plan in an attempt to restore accountability, good governance and an effective focus on equity.

I’m not a former minister of education, but I can tell you with certainty that trustees in Ontario are not doing the job they’ve been elected to do, and when trustees don’t do the job they’ve been elected to do, we only have the illusion of democracy. Glaze’s recommendation to disband elected school boards is not about saving money and it has nothing to do with improving standardized test scores. It’s about improving a 200-year old system that no longer works.

We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, and the education system needs to make an extreme leap forward, out of 1807 (when the position of trustee was first created in Canada), and into the 21st century. The Ontario government would be wise to pay close attention as things roll out in Nova Scotia. Ontario needs to make an extreme leap forward into the 21st century, too. 

 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 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.

  • Education crisis in Ontario: Trustees stay on boards even after issues arise - The Peterborough Examiner, November 7, 2018, click here.

To read Debbie’s published articles, click here.