Toronto board's culture of entitlement exposed

By 
  • May 20, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Having spent $900,000 on questionable expenses in 2007, Toronto’s Catholic school trustees face a political crisis.

“If the perception is that the board is frittering the money away on things that aren’t prescribed under the legislation it makes it difficult for us to win the public relations battle with the Minister (of Education) over underfunding. That’s a given,” said newly appointed Ward 6 trustee Rob Davis.

Davis, a veteran politician who has served on Toronto City Council, was appointed to replace disgraced Ward 6 Trustee Christine Nunziata the same day a bombshell report revealed that Toronto’s Catholic trustees had spent $1,286,614 running the board — almost $900,000 more than the $400,000 grant provided by the Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education trouble shooter Norbert Hartmann also found that:

  • Trustees voted themselves medical and dental benefits even after the board’s lawyer told them such benefits were not envisioned in the Education Act.

  • On multiple occasions a trustee claimed some expenses twice.

  • Trustees bought furniture, computers, Blackberries and cell phones to outfit their home offices, and created a board policy which made these items their personal property at the end of their term of office.

  • Some trustees charged the board rent for their home offices.

  • Some trustees used their $18,000 constituency allowance to hire relatives.

  • Trustees voted themselves an $8,600 car allowance without reference to whether and how much they actually drove on board business. At the same time trustees collected 12.5 cents per kilometre for board-related travel.

  • Between 2003 and 2007 board expenses increased 260 per cent.

  • It cost taxpayers $107,218 per Toronto Catholic trustee in 2007, or $14.94 for every student enrolled in Toronto’s Catholic schools. In comparison, trustees for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board cost just $27,301, or $3.62 per student.
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Hartman has prescribed sweeping reforms and rollbacks to board perks and political spending in a 36-page report titled Enhancing Public Trust and Confidence. The full report is available at www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/nr/08.05/EPTCreport.html.

“Before the 21st of May they have to have a concrete timeline for how they’re going to implement the recommendations of Mr. Hartmann,” said Education Minister Kathleen Wynne. “Not whether they’re going to implement them but how they’re going to implement them.”

A culture of entitlement drove the spending spiral at the board, said trustee Oliver Carroll who chaired the board for most of the period Hartmann reviewed.

“There was no scrutiny,” said Carroll.

Explanations of how the Toronto board ended up spending tax dollars meant for students won’t cut it with the public, said Carroll.

“Bottom line in the public’s mind is that this was wrong, period,” he said. “What we need to do is stand up and say that it was wrong, it was inappropriate.”

Carroll admits he collected more than $7,000 to cover his tuition costs in full for a master’s degree in education.

The culture of entitlement at the board amounts to a moral failing, said Carroll.

“Let me put a positive spin on this,” said current board chair Catherine Leblanc-Miller.

While nobody’s claiming that nothing’s wrong with the way the board has been conducting itself, the board has owned up to its behaviour, she said.

“What I am proud of is the fact that we sought, I sought as the chair, external advice in getting this whole matter under control,” said Leblanc-Miller.

The revelations about board spending come at the same time as the board is $14 million over budget at the end of a two-year deficit reduction plan. Under the Education Act school boards are not entitled to spend more than they take in during the course of a year. To reach break-even the board is proposing to eliminate all-day Kindergarten and cut out popular remedial reading programs.

With parents up-in-arms about the loss of programs, the board has asked for a one-year extension of the deficit reduction plan. Wynne said she would not link her decision on extending the deficit plan to the board’s overspending on itself.

The Catholic community needs to find a deeper talent pool to start running for election as trustee and voters need to be more engaged, said Institute for Catholic Education executive director Sr. Joan Cronin.

“It probably needs to happen at the parish level because that’s still where you look to find people hearing the Gospel and responding to it,” Cronin said.

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