My Latest Editorial: In Defence of Trustees

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The Op-Ed below appeared in the on-line Toronto Star on 7 February, 2017:  In Defence of Trustees

If there is a negative story about the actions of a trustee or a school board one day, you can count on at least one journalist to dash off an article calling for the axing of all trustees the next. Last week was no different.

It seems only with the position of trustee that the shameful actions of one creates a media call for the axing of all. Getting rid of school boards and further centralizing an already highly centralized system of public education would strip virtually all public accountability and silence the community voice.

It is a board of trustees that can and should provide the necessary balance for an institution focused on the daily running of a complex and essential public service focused on students and their success. Under the Education Act, policy, budget approval, setting mission and vision, multi-year strategic planning, and advocacy are key responsibilities for Ontario trustees. Without trustees, governance certainly gets simpler but less accountable. And the result would likely be a widening of the already growing opportunity gap for students.

Budgets should reflect what an organization values, but while restrictive provincial funding is an effective tool to drive province-wide priorities, responding to local needs can prove difficult. Strategic planning is critical when tied to board learning plans, but supportive programming may be lost if it’s not a provincial priority.

Then there is a trustee’s democratic role as an elected community representative. Trustee elections in Ontario coincide with municipal elections, which is a good thing. In 2014, 55.1 per cent of eligible voters marked their Toronto Catholic District School Board trustee ballot in the ward I represent. City-wide, 54.6 per cent of Torontonians voted in the Toronto municipal election. Do we want to cut a model for local engagement at a time when many feel a democratic deficit already exists at all levels of government?

Trustee constituency work includes meeting and working collaboratively with parents, students, school and local community partners, as well as other locally elected officials. People seek out trustees as facilitators when the system doesn’t respond to their needs. Trustees use this local input, in part, to suggest policy change to address disparities related to fairness, equity or social justice issues.

This representative role is seen by some as part of the “difficulty” with school board governance. Why do elected school boards exist, if not to represent parents, students and the community? Giving voice to local needs must inform a school board’s central decisions. When trustees argue that this is not being met, it is staff’s job to explain where it fits with competing system priorities. In this way a public and local decision-making dialogue takes place.

Removing the layer of governance between the province and schools or creating “regional authorities,” as suggested last week by Martin Regg Cohn in the Star, would only perpetuate a deepening cycle of inequity. Students in affluent neighbourhoods with parents who have resources and connections will be fine. The opportunity gap will simply widen for less privileged students.

No doubt about it: changes are needed. But, for the sake of students, let’s ensure that any change strengthens – not weakens – student opportunity and public accountability.

Jo-Ann Davis is Toronto Catholic District School Board Trustee for St. Paul’s, Toronto-Centre, University-Rosedale and Spadina-Fort York.

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