Are the devious Ontario Tories taking advantage of the provincial Education Act to squelch meaningful political opposition to unpopular government policies?Three members of the recently disembowelled Toronto public school board insist that's exactly what Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer and her Conservative cronies have been playing at since they passed legislation two years ago making it possible for them to impose severe penalties on trustees who refuse to obey government dictates.
In fact, so convinced are board members Kathleen Wynne, Sheila Ward and Bruce Davis of the Tories' malevolent intentions that they're taking the province to court in a bid to have parts of the Education Act ruled unconstitutional under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"We think we've got a very good case," says Wynne, the popular and well-spoken trustee for Ward 8 (Eglinton-Lawrence). "It seems pretty obvious that the government is doing everything it can to disable its opponents at the municipal level."
What's at issue here is the part of the act pertaining to ministerial powers to enforce government orders on school board members and punish those who refuse to play ball with their masters at Queen's Park.
"The board and each of its members, officers and employees shall comply with the orders, directions and decisions of the minister in any matter relating to the affairs of the board," section 230.12 (2) states. "Any such person who knowingly fails to comply with any such order or who votes contrary to such order is guilty of an offence and on conviction is liable to a fine of not more than $5,000."
Section 230.12 (3) takes things even further. It states that "if a board that is subject to an order applies any of its funds otherwise than as ordered or authorized by the minister, the members of the board who voted for the application are, (a) jointly and severally liable for the amount so applied; and (b) disqualified for five years from holding any office for which elections are held under the Municipal Elections Act or the Education Act."
In other words, not only does a disobedient trustee stand to lose a lot more than the $5,000 stipend. She or he can also be barred from seeking re-election or moving on to become a city council candidate. Take that, you mutinous rabble-rousers.
As luck would have it, the trustee trio quietly launched their legal action earlier this summer -- long before nine other members of the 22-member public board joined Wynne, Ward and Davis in refusing to pass a balanced budget that would have required $90 million in cuts to the $2 billion operating fund doled out by the ministry.
That stubborn stand against the powers that be in provincial parliament is what ultimately caused Witmer to hand over control of public school spending to appointed supervisor Paul Christie last week.
But the minister chose not to issue written orders to the trustees before naming Tory loyalist Christie -- a former city and Metro councillor who once chaired the Toronto Transit Commission -- to take over the board's financial responsibilities.
No way was Witmer going to turn the trustees into political martyrs whose disobedience could be given moral and legal credence in court come December. Blue-chip constitutional lawyers Neil Finkelstein and Martha Cook will represent Wynne, Davis and Ward pro bono.
"I think these pieces of legislation were written as threats," says Wynne, who will be the Liberal candidate in Don Valley West come the next provincial election. The riding is the current electoral domain of Tory MPP David Turnbull.
"The provincial government knows that local politicians are very close to their constituents, and these punitive sections of the act were intended to deter us from doing the things we told them we'd do," Wynne added. "One of the reasons we took on this court challenge is because we wanted it to be part of the discourse on education funding. A few months ago, who knew it would come to this?"
Bruce Davis says the accountability provisions in the legislation directed at school trustees "encroach on our freedom of expression.
"Worse yet," he argues, "just the fact that these penalties are there has a chilling effect on board members. They're afraid to do what they said they'd do. You've got to wonder how many of the 69 school boards that passed balanced budgets would have complied if those provisions weren't in the act."
Perhaps they'd like to join their Toronto colleagues in court before the Tories amend the legislation to prevent board members like Wynne from contesting provincial constituencies held by government members.
These days, nothing seems beyond the realm of political possibility.