When Trustees scrap like kids, change must come

Imagine you are a trustee of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). You were elected to this position by your community to represent the needs of students and parents. The position is defined by the trust the public has placed with these elected officials. The very title Trustee speaks to the importance of this public trust. Trustees are expected to work with the other 21 elected officials to represent their communities. Collectively the trustees of the school board are expected to make Toronto schools safe places for students and learning. They come together as a Board to make decisions that affect the entire learning environment of the TDSB and to give direction to those who work for the TDSB.

Imagine then, that the place where these decisions are made becomes a place of strife and conflict, where rules of civility and respect no longer apply. Imagine that the chair of the Board calls for a police presence to ensure safety during these meetings. What has happened to the trustees of the TDSB?

Over the past couple of years ongoing disagreements and conflicts between both trustees and the staff of the TDSB have made it impossible for the trustees to work together. Repeated conflicts and the behaviour of the trustees garnish media attention while decisions about education are left unresolved. We learn about the egos involved rather than the decisions of the board. All one needs to do is open a local newspaper to read about the Board’s ongoing problems. Something needs to change. 

Anytime we meet together there is going to be disagreement, it is the nature of politics and decision making. We all have different ideas on how to govern. We come together as individuals to work collectively to improve our communities and our world. When we work together politically egos and personalities need to be held in check to ensure that we listen to each other with respect and behave in a civil manner. These ideas are enshrined in the Canadian political system in how Parliament operates (at least in theory). Members are expected to address the chair with respect and civility. 

These simple rules of conduct are missing from meetings of the TDSB. The trustees of the TDSB need to work together to create a culture of collaboration, rather than a “culture of fear”, as outlined by a 2013 Ernst & Young audit. A recent Toronto Star article quoted an insider, that  “It is symptomatic of deep divisions that are there…It is a systemic issue with the TDSB — they are a dysfunctional bunch of political animals.” The trustees of the TDSB need to learn how to work together, not only to govern better but to set an example for the schools and children they represent. 

Would any of us condone such behaviour in our own lives or with our children? We expect more from our elected officials. Although public trust has been eroded in some other political arenas, we expect that the trustees of public education should be able to work together to govern. When meetings are hijacked by personalities and egos something needs to change. 

Like any other political organization, a code of conduct exists but it has not been invoked because it is a set of guidelines without any means of enforcement. Trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher has called for the appointment of an integrity commissioner to help build a community of trust so TDSB meetings can get back to the work of governance. 

Integrity commissioners have been used by other political organizations to address problems of ethics and integrity. Like ombudsmen they can address a host of issues for organizations where politics and personalities can derail action. They are third party non-elected officials who help not only to enforce codes of conduct but also to provide ethical guidance and direction for those they serve. Everyone needs guidance about decisions that affect public good. It is too easy as individuals for us to see our own issues as paramount ignoring how they relate to the good of the whole. Integrity commissioners help because they remain separate from the organizations they serve and have the authority to censure members who do not behave appropriately both within and outside political meetings. 

An integrity commissioner would help the meetings of the Board of Trustees to get back to the work of governance. At the same time an integrity commissioner would create an environment of trust, a culture of collaboration, between trustees and staff ensuring that any grievances or complaints would be addressed. It would help the TDSB to get back on track. 

Last month's column addressed the issue of Education Development Charge (EDCs). Please visit saveontarioschools.ca to sign the petition.