London

Education ministry should take over London-region school board, local mayor says

Days after he delivered a scathing rebuke of elected officials and senior administrators at the Thames Valley District School Board, a local mayor is calling on the province to take over the board until issues with its governing structure can be resolved.

Former school board officials say latest dispute does not meet the threshold for ministry to step in

The Thames Valley District School Board offices on Dundas Street. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Days after he delivered a scathing rebuke of elected officials and senior administrators at the Thames Valley District School Board, a local mayor is calling on the province to take over the board until what he calls concerns about its ability to operate effectively are resolved. 

But a former director of education and a former chair of the board of trustees both say there's no way that the latest tensions reach the criteria for the ministry of education to bypass the powers of elected and hired officials and bring in a supervisor to run the board. 

"No, not at all. This does not meet the threshold," said former director of education Bill Tucker. 

Matt Reid, the former chair of the board of trustees, added that students are being provided with education and it is being done within a budget approved by the provincial government.

"There is no rationale that would require someone to come in from Toronto, taking away all local authority from the trustees and essentially have Queen's Park or Toronto running schools for the Thames Valley School Board. It is a very extreme circumstance, this definitely does not meet the threshold," Reid said.

Zorra Township Mayor Marcus Ryan asked to speak at Tuesday's school board meeting but was cut off because trustees said his tone was sarcastic and disrespectful. He eventually ran out of his allotted five minutes of speaking time, said trustees had fragile egos and were unwilling to take criticism, and walked out. 

He said he was frustrated that the school board had disbanded a rural education task force before it was finished its work, and because trustees voted to require masks in school but senior administrators refused to give that message to parents, citing a directive from the education ministry. 

"My preference is always to have democratically elected officials decide how our tax dollars are spent on the services that we use but that's clearly not happening at the school board, so somebody needs to take charge," Ryan said. 

Who has ultimate authority? 

In terms of the mask mandate and who had the authority to require masks be worn in schools, Director of Education Mark Fisher is "between a rock and a hard place," trying to figure out if he should listen to trustees or the minister of education, Tucker said. 

"The director essentially has two masters, two bosses that he or she must report to. Trustees do have the power to hire and terminate directors," he added. "They have discretion over budgetary items, but they have to be in alignment with the ministry. In this particular case, the ministry of education was pretty firm in its directions and instructions to directors of education, that there was to be no mask mandate in classes." 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Reid, the former trustee and chair, has a different take. 

"I think that the director is an employee of the board of trustees, and director needs to take their direction from the board of trustees, and that does not appear to be happening here. It does appear to me that the director is caught between a minister of education who doesn't want mask mandates and a board of trustees that is saying 'we do not feel safe without masks,'' he said. 

"At the end of the day, the director needs to be listening to the board of trustees. He is an employee of the board and he doesn't get to make decisions in isolation by himself." 

Mayor was 'antagonistic'

But regardless of what he thinks of the rural education task force or the mask mandate decision, in his presentation to the school board on Tuesday, Ryan came out swinging, saying he didn't know who was in charge and whether he should wear a mask or not. 

"It's important that anyone who watches what happened that Tuesday admits and acknowledges that Marcus was being antagonistic, so I don't think it was out of line for the chair to try to maintain order so his presentation didn't devolve further," said Reid.

"I think people should be respectful and professional and try to work together instead of devolving into name-calling and basically storming out," Reid said. 

Watch: Marcus Ryan speaks to Thames Valley District School Board:

There have always been clashes between rural leaders and communities and the urban-based board, added Tucker. 

"I understand the frustration. The frustration of rural councils is longstanding," he said. 

"I remember very distinctly trying to open doors of communication because of the disconnect that existed in terms of planning and understanding each other." 

Ryan said he will post a letter he writes to the ministry of education asking for a supervisor to be appointed to oversee the Thames Valley District School Board on social media. 

He also wants rural municipalities to take over governing rural schools. 

"I think the ideal scenario would be to give the governance of the schools to local councils in Oxford, Elgin, Middlesex councils and London, respectively," he told CBC News. 

"I think the residents of Oxford, Elgin and Middlesex would be better served and, frankly, I think the residents of London would be better served, by boards that were separated and were able to look after the unique needs of those different communities."

In a statement, the ministry of education said it expect school boards to support all students — regardless of where they live. 

"We expect the board to work collaboratively with local partners to ensure all voices are heard." 

CBC News has contacted all trustees for their comments, but has not heard back. A spokesperson for the board said this was not an issue for the director of education to speak about, and that Chair Lori-Ann Pizzolato was unavailable. 

With files from Gary Ennett

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