It has been quite a year for scandal in public education governance.
Vancouver, for example, might seem to have a claim to be the most dysfunctional school board in Canada, given a review that found it spends more than $70 million a year to heat and maintain the equivalent of 19 empty schools.
But it has nothing on Toronto’s board, which has lately lurched from embarrassment to crisis and back again, culminating in a top level provincial review that said it has a year to shape up or be eliminated. With no report cards this term due to strike action, and a well-documented climate of fear and distrust of management cliques, Canada’s largest school board closed up for the holidays just as cozy in its dysfunction as ever.
Both Vancouver and Toronto have brand new school board leaders, each with a mandate for major corrective action, but it would be a mistake to see them as big city outliers with unique problems. On the contrary, they are the two best expressions of the national trend toward amalgamation in school governance. So for the rest of the country, they offer a cautionary vision of a future.
Roughly, the situation is the opposite of the big banks before the global financial downturn. Those were famously and in some cases falsely seen as “too big to fail.” Canada’s mega-school boards might be too big to succeed.
There is plenty of research that shows boards can be a good buffer against the vagaries of changing political mandates, and can create unified visions that focus sparse regional resources.
But they create their own problems. According to a 2013 academic review, “in recent years there has emerged a growing constituency that have proffered a position that school boards have become wasteful hierarchies whose role in promoting student learning is negligible.”
Over the last two decades, provincial governments have targeted such wastefulness by consolidating them into superboards, taking over their taxation powers everywhere but Manitoba, tweaking funding formulae with an eye to efficiency, and stripping their policy setting function everywhere but Quebec. And the trend is global, from Australia to Sweden, South Africa to the UK.
Broadly, the effect has been to centralize power at the government level, devolve certain authority to individual schools, and cut out the boards in between. But by eroding the autonomy of a formerly crucial layer of governance, the provinces have stumbled into problems worse than simple bureaucratic bloat.
Toronto’s board was created in 1998, right at the peak of the national curve (Ontario that year went from 129 to 72, Quebec 160 to 72), when seven boards were forged into one, as the city amalgamated its inner suburbs. It is overseen by 22 trustees, nearly twice as big as any other board in Ontario. It has nearly a quarter million students in more than 500 schools, with 880 principals and vice-principals and 19,000 teachers and staff, operating with a budget of $3-billion.
It has also seen enrolment drop by 12 per cent over the last decade, coinciding with “increased societal expectations and demands on schools and increased participation by parents and students in decision making,” the report reads.
And in recent years it has endured major scandals of leadership, from the exposure of one director of education as a plagiarist, through to the alleged forcible confinement of another director of education by a trustee in a dispute over a food services contract. (A criminal charge was later dropped by the Crown as having no prospect of success.)
In between those unseemly episodes were the discovery of a hidden camera in a principal’s office, complaints about document tampering and interference in access to information requests (not upheld), and revelations of imprudent spending, such as a locally notorious $143 installation charge for a pencil sharpener.
The Toronto report, by former mayor Barbara Hall, said the board’s size is a “major” cause of “the dysfunction and the erosion of public confidence” alongside “the lack of role clarity, accountability and strong leadership on both the elected and administrative sides of the board.”
Steering a ship of the TDSB’s size demands expertise and sophistication, which is why Hall decided it is “too restrictive” and “completely inappropriate” that the top job of director of education must be filled by an “academic supervisory officer,” with management experience required. In such a complex system, Hall concluded, this is “unacceptable and misguided.”
One common perception, the report found, is that trustees have butted into operational matters in a way that might have made sense in smaller boards, but should really have been left to senior administrators. Another is that trustees have “got the backs” of parents, against the supposed negative influence of bean-counting board administrators. Roughly, everyone in this giant institution resents someone, and no one trusts anyone.
Regardless of Toronto’s woes, the trend towards amalgamation “is continuing” nationally, said Gerald Galway, professor of education at Memorial University, pointing to Newfoundland and Labrador’s recent consolidation of all four English boards into a single provincial one.
Ten years ago, New Brunswick scrapped school boards completely, replacing them with councils bound to follow provincial guidance. In just the last few years, Nova Scotia replaced three school boards with provincial managers. Last month, PEI absorbed the functions of its English board. And Alberta has allowed 15 charter schools on two dozen campuses, which are free from school boards entirely.
All this has tended to increase efficiency and save money, as was a key goal. But like so many economic dynamics, this one is not a straight line of potential increasing to infinity. It is a curve that approaches a limit.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, the recent consolidation marked the end of an gradual amalgamation project begun in 2004. In reviewing the financials, Prof. Galway described the first year of this project as a model of administrative efficiency, achieving its goal of a one third reduction in budget. But the year after that it started to climb, jumping 80% in five years, and rising even higher than the baseline.
With the fiscal benefits less clear cut, governments are realizing that governance by school boards, in the words of Stephen E. Anderson of the Ontario Institute of Education, “is a political and organizational invention, not a natural and inevitable phenomenon.”
“It turns out that the model we’ve developed in the 20th century for public education doesn’t have to be the model that we continue to hold to as we move forward,” said Deani Van Pelt, an education researcher with the Fraser Institute, who released a report this week on charter schools, showing Alberta’s small scale experiment with them has grown (though nowhere near as much as in the United States, where more than 2-million students attend charter schools, motivated in part by parental frustration with the public board model).
The system is, however, deeply entrenched. In an academic study of long term trends in education governance, Claude Lessard and André Brassard of the Université de Montréal described it as a part of the national identity.
The “three-layered structure” of province-board-school, and a fixed tradition of democratic participation, “which we call the vertical and horizontal axes of governance, seem to us as constituting Canada’s institutional heritage, ‘the traces of our origins,’ to borrow an expression,” they wrote.
The modern trend of amalgamation “raises the question of what will henceforth be ‘local,’ as well as about the democratic legitimacy of authorities further and further removed from the schools and the parents of students.”
Amalgamation’s risks are as much cultural as economic. There is a temptation to compare school board politics to campus politics, in which Sayre’s Law holds that the tone is so vicious because the stakes are so low. It seems like a culture that invites petty tyrants.
The Toronto report supports that view. It does not name names, but it describes an in-group that would share information only with favoured colleagues, and an out-group who felt marginalized.
Trustees, for their part, are elected in votes that few people engage with deeply beyond the effect of name recognition, keeping incumbents in place. Voter turnout in school trustee elections rarely tops 15%, and it remains low even in municipal elections when the overall turnout it much higher.
But unlike campus politics, school board stakes are not low. Whether measured in dollars or the less tangible good of education, the stakes are huge.
Ontario’s government released the report in December — four months after it was submitted, but mere hours after it was posted online accidentally. The province said it decided to leave it up in the interest of transparency.
As Canada’s largest school board fights for its life, and the rest look for lessons, it is the least they can offer.