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The jig is up for Canada’s school boards

The Ontario Public School Boards Association has a handy explainer on its website for anyone wondering why these archaic entities even exist in 2017. "School trustees play an indispensable role in preserving our democratic heritage," it says, ignoring the elephant in the classroom.

The truth is that most school boards offer a sorry spectacle of Canadian democracy in action. They cannot even govern themselves, much less look out for the students in their charge. They are plagued by petty ideological battles, personality conflicts, incivility and sheer incompetence.

So few Canadians actually turn out to vote in school board elections that mobilizing your friends and relatives to get to the polls is often enough to become a trustee. If you are strategic and win the backing of a teachers' union or church group, you are all but guaranteed a board seat for life.

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That will allow you to travel to Europe on the taxpayers' dime to participate in "exploratory learning opportunities" no matter how farcical that description. It will allow you to throw your weight around, bully board staff and swear a blue streak at the office with relative impunity.

Sure, the pay's not great. But you can't beat it for the free trips, be they of the European or power variety.

That is, until someone higher up clues in to the obvious: You need adult supervision. The number of cases of provincial education ministers being forced to intervene directly in the management of dysfunctional school boards, even firing entire slates of trustees, keeps growing. From Halifax to Vancouver, this pathetic pattern keeps repeating itself. Yet, provincial governments never seem to learn the lessons of these fiascos.

The latest case of School Board Theatrics 101 involves the York Region District School Board, whose trustees were described as providing "far from strong and ethical leadership" in a recent provincially commissioned review. That is an understatement in itself, considering the board's inaction after one trustee described a black parent in public using the N-word.

"Rather than remaining focused on student achievement and well-being, the board continues to be consumed by infighting and personal clashes, and even in the midst of this review, infighting continued," reviewers Patrick Case and Suzanne Herbert wrote in their report this month to Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter. "We found the lack of concern over the public reaction to their travel expenditures quite astounding. There was no sense that they appreciated the fact the public was seriously questioning their individual and collective judgement."

Of course, Ms. Hunter promised a crackdown, issuing 22 directives and ordering the board to clean up its act. Last week, the board dismissed the director of education it was questioned for hiring in the first place. Perhaps York trustees can be publicly shamed into behaving for a while. At least until the media move on to the train crash unfolding at some other broken school board.

A 2015 advisory panel report on the Toronto District School Board led by former mayor Barbara Hall recommended that if the TDSB continued on its dysfunctional track, it be broken up into as many as three smaller boards. Yet, it is far from clear that smaller boards are any less dysfunctional than bigger ones.

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The Waterloo Region District School Board is a fraction of the size of the TDSB. So is the English-language Lester B. Pearson School Board in suburban Montreal. Yet they, too, have been plagued by the same apparent inability of grown adults to act their age. So the solution is not more and smaller school boards. It is zero school boards.

In today's education system, in which budgets, curriculum and teaching credentials are handled at the provincial level, school boards are an anachronism and have few substantive responsibilities. Most of what they do could be transferred to individual school principals, parents' committees or the province.

Not that abolishing them is easy politics. Quebec's current Liberal government tried, tabling legislation in 2015 to replace the province's 72 elected school boards with school councils made up of parents, principals, teachers and community representatives. The English boards protested that they had a constitutional right to exist. The French boards lobbied just as hard for their survival and the government abandoned its bill within months, preferring to focus on less divisive topics.

But one lost opportunity should not be the end of a good cause.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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