London

How did a school board with a track record of standing up for gay rights reject Prom Queen: The Musical?

The Thames Valley District School Board has London's first openly gay politician and has been a leader on LGBTQ issues.

A decision by senior administrators to pull funding from the play has exposed gaps, trustees say

The cast of Prom Queen: The Musical performs the song Inside Out in Montreal. (Kristin Falcao/CBC)

A decision to pull funding from a play about a gay teen taking his boyfriend to prom has exposed gaps in how decisions are made at the Thames Valley District School Board, some trustees say. 

If trustees had been involved in deciding whether to fund Prom Queen: The Musical, last week's controversy would never have happened, they say.  

"I have no doubt that if someone would have sat down with all of the trustees and said 'We want to pull funding for this project because it's controversial because of the language,' I think the majority of trustees would have been concerned," said longtime Thames Valley trustee Peter Jaffe. 

"We have a great director and a great administrative team, and they made a decision and the trustees weren't part of that decision."

That's how decisions about the Grand Theatre's High School Project are made every year. But this year, the Grand's new artistic director, Dennis Garnhum, chose not a classic, but a new production. Senior administrators rejected the script. 

Prom Queen: The Musical is based on the true story of Marc Hall, a teen at the Durham Region Catholic School Board who in 2002 successfully fought the board to take his boyfriend to prom. 

The Thames Valley Education Centre main offices on Dundas Street. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

The Thames Valley District School Board's director of education is Laura Elliott. 

Between 1996 and 2003, Elliott was a superintendent of education at the Durham District School Board — the public counterpart to the Oshawa-area school board the play centres around. 

It's unclear if or how being at a school board in the Durham region influenced Elliott's decision to pull funding from Prom Queen: The Musical

Elliott has refused interview requests by CBC News. 

Timeline of the funding decision

Every year for the past 20 years, the Grand Theatre lets the Thames Valley and London District Catholic school boards know what the High School Production will be. 

After that, the two boards kick in $15,000 each. 

Here's how things happened this year: 

  • Week of Dec. 11: Elliott and Linda Staudt, the director of education at the London District Catholic school board, were sent the script for Prom Queen: The Musical.
  • Dec. 21: Grand Theatre representatives met with Elliott and Staudt to discuss the production. Both Elliott and Staudt said they thought the play was "problematic" and that they had "concerns," said Deb Harvey, the Grand's executive producer, who was in the room. No decisions were made. 
  • There was a break for Christmas. The Grand decided that, if the two boards pulled their funding, they would go ahead with the production and try to make up the $30,000 loss from other donors. 
  • Jan. 2 or 3: Harvey called Elliott and Staudt to ask them if they were going to sponsor the play. Both said no. The Thames board says it consulted staff in its Safe Schools department.
  • Jan. 16: A committee of the board, called the Chair's Committee, made up of trustees Matt Reid, Arlene Morell, Joyce Bennett, were told about the administrative decision. 
  • Jan. 17: CBC News reports that the two school boards won't fund the project, resulting in immediate backlash against the decision. 

Thames Valley trustee Jake Skinner said he'd like to see the rules changed so such funding decisions are brought to the trustees. 

He found out about the decision on social media. 

"I wasn't consulted. The trustees weren't consulted. As an elected official, I don't like to find things out on social media," Skinner said. 

He'll be bringing forward a motion to Tuesday's board meeting asking that trustees be consulted about funding decisions related to theatre productions. 

Track record of inclusively

The school board has said the play contained inappropriate language and didn't show adults — in particular a priest, teacher and a principal — in a positive light. 

They insist the move has nothing to do with the play's central theme — a gay student's fight for his right to bring a same-sex date to a Catholic school prom. 

The Thames Valley Board does have a track record of embracing the LGBTQ community. 

The chair of the board of trustees, Matt Reid, is London's first openly gay politician. Many schools have gender-neutral bathrooms. The school board flies the Pride flag and the trans flag. 

For the past 12 years, the board has held a large Gay Straight Alliance conference. 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.

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