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Toronto District School Board must take responsibility for its errors

Chris Spence

RENE JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR Director Chris Spence and the TDSB board should accept the advice of an independent audit criticizing their accountability in capital spending projects.

The Ontario Ministry of Education’s plan to stop runaway spending at the cash-strapped Toronto District School Board is an excellent step — even if it’s long overdue.

A new independent audit criticizes school board managers for a lack of leadership and accountability in capital spending projects — and cites a Star investigation into exorbitant fees charged by the board’s powerful maintenance and construction union.

The ministry says it is offering a “Special Assistance Team” of education advisors to help the board cut operations spending. However politically embarrassing it may be, TDSB Director Chris Spence and the board should accept the offer if they care about education. As high school football coaches once said (before the teachers’ job action ended after-school sports) without pain, there is no gain. And a little hurting at the TDSB could save taxpayers millions.

For too long, ministry officials looked the other way while Toronto’s school board cried poor but allowed its powerful trade union to hijack education dollars, for example by spending $ 3,000 for an electrical outlet or $ 143 to install a pencil sharpener. On a larger scale, the board sat placidly by while costs of the new Nelson Mandela Park Public School inflated by nearly $ 10 million — and then professed not to know how it happened.

Even now, fresh data on work orders obtained by the Star’s Kevin Donovan, reported in today’s Star, gives more examples of overspending: $ 147.88 to cut one key for the board’s east education office, and $ 810 to “remove unpleasant words” on a washroom stall at Elkhorn Public School. That’s the kind of waste that undermines confidence in public services.

When the PricewaterhouseCoopers report detailed damning examples of wasted money and ineffectual board managers, ministry officials offered the board their special assistance team. That was last week. Despite repeated requests, the ministry has had no answer from the board. Wednesday’s 5 p.m. deadline passed without a response.

Talk about avoidance. First we have incompetence; now we have ego.

To be fair, new managers at the board have started taking a hard approach with the Maintenance Construction and Skilled Trades Council, whose bosses have spent years threatening staff who questioned their extortion-worthy fees. Their contract is now being renegotiated. New facilities manager Angelos Bacopoulos is cracking down on abuses, such as workers who sleep on the job. The board has also called in Toronto police to investigate fraud allegations related to its trades.

But the problems are systemic. It’s naïve to think that a few good managers can clear away years of bully tactics by the union, especially when it created powerful political capital by helping trustees and Liberal MPPs during election campaigns.

Trustee Sam Sotiropoulos welcomes the ministry’s oversight. “By the time you finally hit an iceberg like this, you know something is really wrong,” Sotiropoulos says. “It’s going to take a long time to create lasting change.” He’s right.

It’s not just spending that creates a problem for this board. Its leadership and trustees have shown a lack of political courage on hard issues, like the recent decision against selling some school properties to raise money. The decision — to do nothing — came after the ministry froze its funding until its $ 50 million deficit is paid off.

When the board missed its deadline yesterday, Broten’s office issued a news release saying it accepted its plan to meet in the evening.

“If they decline (the offer) I will review the options that are available to me to get TDSB on a more stable financial footing and will be able to advise on next steps tomorrow,” Broten wrote.

Ultimately, the ministry can force its way into the board. If it comes down to brinksmanship, then the right choice is a board that takes responsibility for its flaws, however painful, and fixes its own problems. It may be the adults, not students, who need to learn that lesson.

thestar.com – Opinion

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