Local democracy is making a comeback, folks, and Big Daddy Dalton don’t like it much.
Nope, our paternalistic preem has wagged his finger at all those irresponsible trustees on the Toronto District School Board who had the audacity – after listening to their constituents and their conscience – to vote in favour of creating an Africentric alternative school.
In calling for residents to lobby their trustees and “put a stop to this,’’ Premier Dalton McGuinty is fanning the flames of an already heated debate that has, up until his meddling, been a model of public participation. There have been forums, committees struck, kilos of newsprint and stacks of reports going back over a decade.
The January 29 board meeting was a gleaming example of local control in action, and not just because trustees voted the right way. The chambers were packed to the rafters with parents, teachers and students, both for and against, sitting side by side.
Yes, it was intense. And, yes, more than once the thought occurred to me that if trustees nixed this proposal, the disappointment might be more than the couple of security guards could handle. But save for a few nasty remarks, both sides were civil, and the losers accepted the decision.
So it’s breathtaking to watch how, when communities make decisions that run up against establishment agendas, the bigwigs’ natural reflex is to go anti-democratic. They go arrogant, too. The premier’s comments after the vote implied that trustees hadn’t done their homework, which must have rankled these overworked and underpaid reps, and that parents hadn’t been consulted.
But parents were very involved. Just ask trustee Josh Matlow, who surprisingly attempted – and failed – to get trustees to revote on the matter. “I have had hundreds of conversations about this issue. I have spoken to many parents and students about this,” he told me before the vote.
Matlow spearheaded the no side and, coincidentally (or not), is a Liberal. So maybe McGuinty meant that only trustees who had the cheek to vote for the school were ill-informed and hadn’t heard properly from their constituents.
Well, that ain’t going to fly either. Possibly the most important vote cast that evening was by board vice-chair Michael Coteau, one of only two black trustees.
Coteau had been against the idea until a recent public meeting where overwhelming support from parents changed his mind.
Sure, this is a sticky wicket for McGuinty, who so successfully used the faith-based schools issue to his advantage in the last election. The problem with conflating an Africentric alternative school with the separate schools issue, however, is that the TDSB’s decision is just part of an overall strategy to pull black kids out of a segregated situation, not put them in one.
In this case, that situation is school failure and alienation. Indeed, the board’s overall plan, which includes pilot black curriculum projects in three other schools, is aimed at integrating kids into the mainstream of the system.
So what’s McGuinty’s game? To overturn the board’s decision unilaterally would throw us right back into the Harris years.
And threats to other municipalities against going where the TDSB has gone only furthers suspicion that the province would rather keep a boot on the throat of local self-expression than find creative solutions to an untenable dilemma.
It’s possible McGuinty hopes that if he feeds this fracas, we’ll forget that so many of the problems listed in last month’s Falconer report have roots in the province’s limp response to urban poverty in general and the problems of black youth in particular.
So maybe we need to wag a finger back at the preem. Many of these kids are already segregated by the lack of resources and all the hell that goes with that.
The TDSB is rightly taking charge of the situation within its mandate. Maybe it’s time for the province to start doing the same.