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TDSB to tighten spending oversight after audit results

Toronto District School Board meeting on Sept. 11, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto District School Board has pledged to tighten its oversight of provincially funded programs for students outside the classroom, after an audit revealed lax procedures for overseeing spending.

The forensic audit, commissioned by Education Minister Liz Sandals, revealed the school board may not have followed provincial rules by using some funds to help balance its books. The Ernst & Young LLP audit also said financial reports submitted to the province for an employment program for at-risk youth were not approved by the school board's chief financial officer.

The program is Focus on Youth, the same one that provided funding to a charity founded by TDSB chair Chris Bolton. The Globe and Mail has reported that the Friends of Community Schools received $56,000 to run a summer camp for 225 students in 2009.

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Howard Goodman, a TDSB trustee and member of the audit committee, said Ernst & Young's findings released in December clearly show that accountability has been circumvented at Canada's largest school board.

"I think that it's critically important that fiscal responsibility and accountability be impeccable if we are to maintain public confidence," Mr. Goodman said.

Focus on Youth is one of hundreds of ventures that receive provincial funding for recreation and French as a second language programs. The government allocated $124-million to the province's 72 school boards in fiscal 2014 over and above their global budgets. The TDSB's share was $16.5-million, including $2.8-million for Focus on Youth.

Jim Spyropoulos, TDSB executive superintendent of equity and inclusive schools who runs Focus On Youth, said in an interview that all of the program's reports went through the necessary "administrative channels." He added that until recently, the Ministry of Education did not require the CFO to vet the reports.

"I spend every cent of that money in the most frugal and respectful manner," he said.

Ernst & Young says that prior to December, 2012, the TDSB had no formal policy stipulating that its chief financial officer was required to approve reports. That same month, the TDSB approved a motion at a board meeting, saying the CFO must vet all future financial reports, according to minutes of the meeting.

TDSB director of education Donna Quan said the school board has worked with the ministry to strengthen its governance of the programs. The TDSB has a new policy requiring that any surplus funds not spent on programs for children and youth be returned to the ministry. The audit report criticized the TDSB for using $3.2-million of the funding to help balance its budget in fiscal 2012-13, saying that by doing so, the board did not follow its agreement with the ministry.

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"I can categorically and 100 per cent state that all funding is used as intended for the school year for student achievement," Ms. Quan said in an interview.

Trustee Elizabeth Moyer first raised the concerns about the TDSB's financial oversight practices last May. Ms. Moyer, who chaired the TDSB's audit committee at the time, said in a letter to Ms. Sandals that committee members requested a copy of a forensic audit on the Focus on Youth program but were stonewalled.

"I had nowhere to go but to the minister for help," Ms. Moyer said in an interview.

Around the same time that she sent the letter to the ministry, Ms. Moyer faced a harassment complaint from Mr. Spyropoulos. Ms. Moyer also faced conflict-of-interest allegations because Focus on Youth hired her two daughters for summer jobs in 2012. They were not hired back the following summer and trustees voted her off the audit committee in 2013.

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