Three ways progressives can turn the dysfunctional school board around

The recent municipal election may have replaced.

The recent municipal election may have replaced one right-wing mayor with another – and returned all but one incumbent city councillor – but voters opted for more dramatic change at the Toronto District School Board, where 12 of the 22 elected trustees formally taking office this week self-identify as progressives.

In Ward 20, the odious Sam Sotiropoulos – whose homophobic and transphobic tweets, attacks on colleagues and anti-union tirades made him one of the most divisive figures on the board – was defeated by Manna Wong, a former assistant to NDP MPP Peter Tabuns.

In Ward 12, Alexander Brown, a left-leaning former ESL teacher, defeated the incumbent board chair, Mari Rutka and in Ward 18, right-leaning Elizabeth Moyer was defeated by newcomer Parthi Kandavel.

In Ward 8, the spot vacated by Howard Goodman, whose erratic career ended with his recent arrest on harassment and forcible confinement charges (allegedly involving former board director Donna Quan), was filled by Jennifer Arp, a parent activist who sits on the board’s equity advisory committee.

There was more good news with the election of Marit Stiles in Ward 9, Jennifer Story in Ward 15 and Ausma Malik, who won a decisive victory in Ward 10 despite being the target of an organized Islamophobic smear campaign.

But not all wards swung left. Despite being embroiled in controversy for claiming $3,765 in questionable expenses for a trip to Israel, Gerri Gershon, one of the board’s longest-serving trustees, easily won re-election without seeming to campaign in her East York Ward 13.

Meanwhile, voters in Ward 1 decided to replace right-wing incumbent John Hastings with Michael Ford, whose only credentials for the job are the fact that he’s the 20-year-old nephew of former mayor Rob Ford.

While it’s tempting to take comfort in the results, we should be realistic about the ability of even the most well-intentioned individuals to radically change a TDSB that has been a dysfunctional bureaucratic behemoth since the six former Metro school boards were forcibly amalgamated by the Mike Harris government in the mid-90s.

Trustees have limited powers. While they control the school board budget, chronic underfunding restricts the TDSB’s ability to enhance programs or hire staff. This has been the case since the Harris government also stripped schools boards of their power to raise taxes.

They’re required to pass balanced budgets by law or face provincial takeover. 

Despite these constraints, there are a few simple things trustees can do right away to support the most vulnerable and marginalized students.

It would be nice, for example, to see the new TDSB finally put some teeth into its Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy passed in 2007. It promises “sanctuary schools” for undocumented students, but the board has done an uneven job of promoting the policy so that most students and even many staff are unaware it exists. 

Trustees also have the power to enhance transparency and public accountability, particularly around the awarding of contracts and management of properties. 

Though this is a long-term task, a good place to start would be changing the practice of using a “consent agenda,” whereby multiple motions are bundled into a kind of omnibus bill and passed en masse to expedite meetings. Too often, controversial motions relating to the sell-off of board properties are slipped into these bundles.

But for a truly equity-minded board, a top priority should be ending the highly problematic School Re-source Officer (SRO) program. 

Established in 2009, the program, which is run by Toronto police, places armed and uniformed police officers in schools. Students are encouraged to view them as their friends and confidants. At some schools, the SRO runs clubs and coaches sports. 

Principals often like them because they function as a stopgap, replacing the social workers and support staff lost over the years to budget cuts. Many teachers like them, too, because of the discipline problems that have escalated in minority communities with rises in poverty and precarious work.

But not all students feel safe in the presence of armed police in their schools, especially students from ra-cialized communities who have been the targets of police carding, or undocumented students who fear being turned over to immigration officials. 

None of the “progressive” trustees on our board campaigned on ending the SRO program. It hasn’t even been on the radar of some of them. But the potential exists to put it and other equity-based issues on the agenda if trustees are willing to push it. 

Jason Kunin is a Toronto-based teacher, writer and district executive officer at-large with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, District 12. | @nowtoronto


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