Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone
It’s a little-known side of being a school trustee, to oversee expulsion hearings, and Chadwick has two that day. Neither he, nor the other two trustees needed for the tribunal, will be told beforehand why these principals are calling for expulsion; it could be a stabbing, a robbery on the way to school, maybe an ambush in the school washroom, a drug deal.
Some hearings “are emotionally draining and can be very traumatic for families,” said Chadwick, a retired principal and trustee on the Toronto District School Board. “If a translator is needed, they can last five or six hours.”
The trio of trustees checks for mitigating circumstances: Had the student been bullied? Does he or she have special needs? Then they rule on whether the student is to be expelled from that school, or from the entire board and sent to a special program, or not expelled at all.
For a school trustee, there’s stress in holding a student’s fate in your hands.
And lately, there’s also the stress of people calling for the abolition of your job.
TENSIONS AT Canada’s largest school board have
grown so toxic that a growing chorus of critics is calling for trustees to be scrapped all together.
Yet elected school boards pre-date Confederation. They’re seen as the first rung of democracy, the last box on the ballot. But Canadian school boards have become a shadow of what they once were, stripped of power over everything from taxation to labour negotiations.
So what do trustees do, beyond bicker at the board table?
Their champions call them the storefront of the school system; a human being to decode the edu-babble and draw a road map through red tape, a voice that’s accountable to voters and, yes, a complaints bureau.
“There are indeed questions of relevance — the challenges of government control, low voter turnout for trustees and lack of interest are very much a global phenomenon,” admitted education professor Bruce Sheppard, of Newfoundland’s Memorial University. Sheppard is co-author of a sweeping 2013 study, School Boards Matter: Report of the Pan-Canadian Study of School District Governance, and a former director of education himself.
“But what’s not seen is the very important work trustees do bringing community voices to the table; they’re the connecting piece and this has huge value if we value democracy,” said Sheppard, whose study concluded that trustees are key to making education “effective.”
Just because some trustees behave badly is no reason to throw away a level of government, he said. “Look what goes on at Toronto City Council, but nobody’s saying it has to be disbanded.”
IT’S 6:30 A.M. and TDSB Trustee Shelley Laskin is responding to emails before going to her day job. A parent has asked about the impact of a neighborhood development, so she seeks clarification from board planners. A principal has concerns about construction for full-day kindergarten; she flips a query to the board’s facilities people. Someone has complained about dog poo in a schoolyard. Another asks if the lack of toilet paper in a school washroom is a sign of cutbacks.
“They were flying off the roof — 100 of them — and they’re heavy,” said parent Karen Rosen, co-chair of the school council. “With the massive bureaucracy of a school board, just navigating who to call is staggering, and a trustee knows all the layers,” said Rosen.
In Etobicoke, Trustee Pam Gough is responding to a resident who witnessed students in an act of vandalism, and a question about a broken school elevator from the parent of a child with a freshly broken leg. There’s also a complaint about dog poo. Gough wonders if a police youth program might train a special team of young ambassadors who could sweet-talk dog owners into taking time to scoop.
They’re the ones parents ask to referee disputes with a school over bullying, or a child’s mark, a teacher’s behavior or noisy early-morning snowplow, or eligibility for French immersion. Trustees have a hand in which principal works where.
For $ 6,000 to $ 26,000 a year — their honorarium in Ontario varies depending on enrolment — trustees do a fair bit of what veteran Toronto Trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher calls “fussy work” that higher-paid bureaucrats would otherwise have to handle.
“Frankly, I think we’re a bit of a bargain.”
In Sudbury, Trustee Tyler Campbell gets emergency calls about bears at school bus stops.
“The rural piece would be lost without trustees to pressure staff to think of it,” said Campbell. When the Rainbow District School Board recommended closing three schools, Campbell fought to keep a tiny rural one open because the bus ride to the next community would have been unbearably long.
“In the end, it was trustees who kept it open,” he said, “even though a dollars-and-cents argument would have closed it.”
In Toronto, Trustee Gerri Gershon planned to meet a community activist who wants to expand a vegetable garden on school property.
In the east end, Cary-Meagher negotiated a solution to a dumpster plopped in front of a school that angry neighbors dubbed Raccoon Cafeteria. After meetings with families and staff, she arranged for it to be moved behind the school.
TRUSTEES BOAST about adding local flavour to generic policies.
“Education is a bit like a dress pattern; we may all buy the same one from the store (Queen’s Park), but what fabric you use and how good a seamstress you are make all the difference to the final product,” said Cary-Meagher.
As a trustee, her concern about poverty in 1998 led to the award-winning Model Schools for Inner Cities program that distributes $ 8.5 million a year to more than 150 Toronto schools in low-income neighborhoods.
“Model Schools wouldn’t have happened without trustees,” she said. “For a good painting, you do need broad brush strokes to start (from the ministry) but it’s the fine brush strokes from school boards that add the detail.”
Similarly, Gershon was instrumental in pushing for an innovative course about genocide. Gough spearheaded an Active Transportation Charter that encourages families to see that their children walk or bike to school rather than be chauffeured by car.
Local trustees are the eyes on the ground, agreed East Gwillimbury Trustee Loralea Carruthers.
“We have our fingers on the pulse of the community. If the board is talking about changing school boundaries, I’m the one who knows where the railroad tracks are that kids can’t cross. If it’s busing, I know the blind corners. I see the urgency when a subdivision needs a new school, because I drive by it every day.
“We deal with issues so parents don’t have to do it themselves.”
IT’S 9 P.M. and Laskin is replying to the day’s emails from parents — about bullying, about a child’s mark, about an after-hours permit and a report of chicken pox.
“Why do we need these middle-men, or middle-persons? Because they’re just that; someone between us and the TDSB,” said parent Robynn Rutherford of Humewood Public School, who said she calls Laskin about everything from how to get permission for a sign outside the school to school renovations.
“The TDSB is so massive, why would you not want to have an elected representative? They’re the line of communication so you know where to go. That person is imperative.”