Province expected to take over school board

  • May 29, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - The chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board says chances are “pretty slim” the elected trustees will not be replaced by a provincially appointed supervisor June 4.

“The odds that there will be a supervisor appointed are very great,” Catherine Leblanc-Miller said during a break in the first of two emergency meetings for the trustees May 27 and 29. The trustees were scrambling to come up with a balanced budget and new policies governing trustee expenses by May 29, after The Catholic Register’s deadline.

Even if a supervisor is called in, the board’s good faith efforts to clean up the expense account mess and balance the budget won’t be a wasted effort, said Miller.

“These are the kinds of things a supervisor will be looking at. I don’t think anything we’re doing here is a waste of time,” she said.

Former chair Oliver Carroll wouldn’t give odds on a Ministry of Education takeover, but said he hoped Wynne would settle for keeping the board “on a short leash” until December by leaving a Ministry of Education investigator in place to look over the shoulder of the board.

Wynne sent an investigator in to write a report on how well Toronto’s Catholic school board is coping with issues ranging from a $14-million deficit to reforming the richest package of trustee perks in Ontario. The report due June 4 is a formal step necessary before the province sends in a supervisor to take over the functions of the board.

“Even if we do arrive at a balanced budget it’s not going to be enough,” Carroll said as he opened debate on reconsidering a deficit budget passed May 14.

It took over an hour of debate and confusion over procedural matters before trustees could begin to discuss possible measures to bring their budget in line with the Education Act, which prohibits deficits.

“I would like to convince the minister we’re competent enough to avoid supervision,” said trustee Sal Piccinnini. “We have a lot of talent around this room, regardless of what people think.”

In an open letter e-mailed to all Toronto media before the emergency meeting, fellow trustee Maria Rizzo called for Wynne to take over the board. Rizzo was the only trustee to vote against reopening the budget passed May 14, and disputed whether the May 14 budget motion was in fact a budget.

“Any idiot can balance a budget,” said Rizzo. “It takes wisdom to make decisions to save programs for our kids.”

The board has seen a slight increase of 410 high school students, but it’s struggling with a drop of 1,311 elementary school pupils. Decreases in enrolment should translate into 65 fewer teachers, but the board has voted against sending out layoff notices.

Trustee John Del Grande asked staff to report back on the possibility of a hiring freeze, among other measures to trim the deficit. Trustees also discussed the possibility of closing some of the 25 to 28 elementary schools with 140 or fewer students, though the legal process for closing a school takes at least three years.

In addition to starting the process to rebalance their $900 million budget, the trustees voted in new expense account policies to replace the ones condemned in the May 7 Hartmann Report. Trustees will no longer have medical and dental coverage, must present mileage reports before being reimbursed for travel and must return their Blackberries, notebook computers and other equipment to the board upon leaving office.

“If we’re not seriously looking at consolidating some of our schools with smaller enrolment, then we’re not being serious about reducing our deficit in the medium term,” said trustee Rob Davis.

While the deficit struggle continues, Leblanc-Miller learned that a motion to accept the recommendations of a report on trustee expense accounts fell far short of Wynne’s expectation that the board create a whole new set of expense and governance policies by May 21. At a meeting with Wynne May 23, Wynne told Leblanc-Miller it is disturbing that trustees were continuing to use their 18,000 constituency budgets to personally support extracurricular activities and projects in schools in their wards, even after a report said the practice gave the appearance of political empire building.

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