School board chair vows to stay on

  • June 11, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Major newspapers, the Peterborough-and-area Catholic school board and hundreds of parents have called on Toronto’s Catholic school trustees to resign. But board chair Catherine Leblanc-Miller rejects the calls.

“If I am resigning... it  will be because of the impact of all of this on my family,” she told The Catholic Register. “It will be because of the countless hours over recent weeks and months that I have neglected my family. It will not  be because of any shame I feel.”

A damning May 7 report on trustee expenses showed Toronto’s Catholic board spent $900,000 more on trustees than the Ministry of Education grants the board for governance expenses. Norbert Hartmann documented trustees voting themselves medical and dental benefits after their own lawyer advised such benefits are not allowed under the Education Act; interfering in board hiring; doling out small contracts to relatives for constituency work; and handing money from their $18,000 constituency budgets over to charities, school councils and parent groups in their own names in what appeared to be political favours.

Hartmann has since been appointed supervisor, taking over almost all functions of the trustees for the foreseeable future.

Leblanc-Miller doesn’t believe voters need another chance to reconsider the roster of trustees they elected in both 2003 and 2006. Voter turnout in 2006 was just over 37 per cent of 312,770 identified Catholic electors in Toronto.

“We are held accountable not just when there’s a forensic auditor in, when I go to the fraud squad. We should be held accountable at each and every meeting,” Leblanc-Miller said. “If the public doesn’t show up, and media doesn’t show up, and people don’t engage us, then we are left to take decisions without that.”

All the decisions around trustee expenses now being questioned were made in open, public meetings, said Leblanc-Miller.

“Do I now think they (voters) should have an opportunity to pay attention to who they are electing? No, I don’t believe so. I think their next opportunity is 2010,” she said.

The board won’t be meeting any time soon. Hartmann alone has the power to call meetings, and he has told trustees he doesn’t plan on meetings in the near term. He has asked that trustees continue to meet with parents and bring their concerns to him, and he has urged a respectful, co-operative relationship. Trustees may continue to attend school functions.

Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association president Paula Peroni respects the Toronto trustees’ right to make their own decisions about resigning, and would not comment on a letter the provincial organization received from the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board. The letter claimed all Ontario Catholic trustees are under the shadow of Toronto’s scandal and asked the provincial body to urge Toronto trustees to “do the right thing and allow new leadership to heal rifts in the community.”

“With respect to resignations, that’s going to be a personal decision with respect to the Toronto Catholic trustees,” said Peroni.

If people feel Ontario school trustees are not up to the job of balancing multimillion dollar budgets and setting school policy, OCSTA would welcome the involvement of parishes and Ontario’s bishops in identifying and encouraging more and better qualified candidates to run in the 2010 elections, she said.

“I think we have very successful candidates in the position around the province now, for the most part,” Peroni said. “Boards function well, for the most part. We have some very successful and very knowledgeable folks as trustees right now.”

An OCSTA survey of the 29 Catholic boards and five school authorities following the 2006 elections found 80 acclamations to the 21 boards which responded to the questionnaire. There are 250 Catholic school trustees in Ontario. At least one-third of Ontario’s Catholic trustees came to the position without facing the electorate, although all 12 of Toronto’s trustees ran as incumbents and were opposed in 2006.

Panic over the Toronto scandal should be tempered by knowledge that Education Minister Kathleen Wynne has vowed to protect denominational education rights and has appointed a team of supervisors with long experience in the Catholic system, Peroni said.

Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins has declined further comment on the situation since he issued a public letter to the trustees a week before the provincial takeover. In his letter, Collins called the Hartmann Report “thorough, fair and excellent,” while taking the trustees to task for the scandal surrounding the board.

“This board’s actions over the past few years reflects poorly on Catholic education, and on the whole Catholic community,” Collins said.

Leblanc-Miller is adamant she is not about to fall on her sword after working hard to uncover and reform the board’s spending practices. She told The Register that since December she has worked to cancel corporate credit cards, met with police fraud investigators, met with Wynne, setting in motion the Hartmann report, which has led to external auditors looking into board practices.

“And every trustee will be held accountable,” she said. “If external auditors find anything that is fraudulent in nature, it is their responsibility and mandate to contact the ministry legal (department), who will contact police. So I am very proud of each and every one of those actions that I took.”

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