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Minister describes TDSB problems as threat to students, ‘culture of fear’

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals, left, and education consultant Margaret Wilson hold a news conference at Queen’s Park in Toronto Thursday.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The dysfunction at Canada's largest school board is getting "dangerously close" to the classroom, threatening to hurt teacher morale and undermine student achievement, Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals says.

The minister was responding on Thursday to a government-appointed consultant's report outlining a litany of problems at the Toronto District School Board: Lax governance that allowed a former chair to pursue "pet projects" unilaterally; trustees routinely interfering in day-to-day operations, including promoting principals and vice- principals; micromanaging by the board's top-ranking staffer; and fears among many employees that their e-mails and telephone calls are monitored.

At stake, concludes the report written by education consultant Margaret Wilson, is the ability of teachers to concentrate on the well-being and progress of 247,000 elementary and secondary students.

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Ms. Sandals said Ontario governments have appointed a supervisor to take over a school board's operations only when it is running a deficit. But she warned she could resort to supervision if the board does not make changes, giving it one month to respond.

"The culture of fear, which may have started at the upper levels of the board, is getting dangerously close to the classroom," Ms. Sandals said in accepting Ms. Wilson's report in its entirety. "We have to stop that."

Ms. Sandals has given the school board until Feb. 13 to make changes that include cutting education director Donna Quan's salary to $272,000 from $289,000 to bring it into compliance with the province's wage-freeze legislation; developing policies that clearly articulate the roles and responsibilities of the chair, trustees and senior staff; and closing trustees' offices at the school board's headquarters with the exception of the chair.

She also ordered it to develop policies to ensure better oversight by the audit committee of international partnerships. Former chair Chris Bolton unilaterally negotiated a consulting contract with a school in Vietnam that teaches the Ontario curriculum and an accord with the Confucius Institute, a language program controlled by the Chinese government, that was cancelled last year.

Newly appointed chair Shaun Chen said the board is prepared to meet the deadline even though it will be "incredibly challenging."

"When there is a lack of confidence in the board, it affects everybody," Mr. Chen said in an interview. "We can't afford to let it affect the system and have an impact on student learning."

Ms. Wilson says in her report that she was "deeply distressed" that many employees she spoke to feared for their jobs if they were identified.

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"Some were in tears," the report says. Others in mid-career, the report adds, were concerned that their reputations would be damaged because of their association with the school board.

A culture of fear at the board has "seeped down to the level of school vice-principals and principals and, in some cases, teachers," the report says.

Ms. Wilson blames trustees who meddle in day-to-day affairs. Some, the report says, insist on going into the classroom to watch teachers perform, and trustees have the final say on who gets promoted to principal or vice-principal.

Many staff members avoid using the school board's e-mail system and contact each other on their personal phones because they believe the board's systems are regularly monitored, the report says. Ms. Wilson told reporters she witnessed this firsthand. Board staff knew when certain employees were coming to see her, so she said she started setting up interviews by contacting people on their cell phones instead of their office phones.

Ms. Wilson's report is particularly critical of Ms. Quan for refusing to release her employment contract to former chair Mari Rutka. The report also says "senior staff do not feel trusted to do their jobs" because Ms. Quan checks the content, spelling and grammar in reports they prepare.

Ms. Sandals appointed Ms. Wilson last November in response to a letter from Ms. Rutka, accusing Ms. Quan of stonewalling on several fronts, including over her contract.

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Ms. Rutka welcomed Ms. Wilson's report as "a very comprehensive and clear-eyed review of all that has been going on in the TDSB." She added that the findings supporting the board's right to certain information, such as Ms. Quan's contract, "can only be good for the board."

With a report from Jill Mahoney

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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