Restoring credibility

  • May 21, 2008

{mosimage}No one says being an Ontario Catholic school trustee in these times is easy. The vast majority of trustees recognize, too, that theirs is a vocation with few rewards and a grinding workload. So the temptation to ease that burden in questionable ways may be understandable — even as succumbing to it is never acceptable.

Yet the behaviour described in the provincial Ministry of Education report written by Norbert J. Hartmann leads to the inescapable conclusion that some trustees of the Toronto Catholic District School Board eased their burden using taxpayers’ money in ways that go beyond limits allowable by the law or ethics.

Hartmann is a well-respected education bureaucrat and veteran of the Catholic school system. In his review of the expenses of trustees on the Toronto Catholic board, he observed that the trustees are giving themselves benefits not permitted by the Education Act, are being reimbursed for expenses not related to board business and are allocating board funds in ways not provided in legislation. He points out that the board is spending more than $100,000 per trustee, compared to $67,000 per trustee for the Toronto public board and $27,000 per trustee for its nearest neighbour, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. Costs for the Toronto Catholic board are the highest in the province.

Hartmann does not question the motives of the trustees, but he is quite clear that their actions can easily lead to the perception that trustees and their relatives and friends are benefitting unfairly from public office. He also concluded that trustees are buying supplies and services in inefficient and poorly controlled ways and that the approval process for trustee expenses has been so politicized that the system has been compromised.

“Trust and confidence are the currency of political institutions,” Hartmann observed. “Where citizens believe that their representatives are acting in the best interest of constituents, and are convinced that they are doing so in an effective and efficient manner, respect for, and confidence in, elected officials is high. Where these traits are absent, public cynicism and distrust of politicians is the norm.”

That goes for all politicians. Catholic school trustees bear an added level of responsibility. Because the Catholic school system is always vulnerable to attack from those who resent the constitutional educational guarantees provided for Catholics in Ontario, there are many on the look-out for reasons to challenge the credibility and value of the separate school system. When trustees indulge in this kind of behaviour, they give powerful ammunition to their critics.

Unfairly perhaps, but inevitable nevertheless, the attacks will not focus just on those who are directly involved in the dubious behaviour, but on all Catholic trustees all over Ontario, not to mention all those who work in the system. They don’t deserve this.

Hartmann has given the Toronto trustees, and the Ministry of Education, a roadmap to clean up the mess and restore public trust. Their duty is clear.

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