Search for school board leaders presents opportunity in face of racism discussions, say experts

Education experts and trustees say several vacancies for directors of education in Ontario school boards provide an opportunity to reform the system.

'Systemic racism is also part of the education system, just like in policing,' says York University professor

Carl James is a York University professor and the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora. (Mario So Gao/York University)

As several Ontario school boards search for new directors of education, some experts say the situation presents an opportunity to kick start a much-needed reform of the education system. 

According to the Council of Ontario Directors of Education (CODE), there have been 14 vacancies over the last six months due to retirements. Several of the positions have been filled with permanent candidates while other boards are still looking.

At the country's largest school board, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the search is on for a replacement for outgoing interim director Carlene Jackson, the first Black woman to serve as the board's director.

"It's a very interesting time," said Carl James, a professor in the faculty of education at York University. "At this time we're talking about race, we're talking about systemic racism, we're talking about anti-Black racism." 

It's not lost upon him three Ontario boards have Black women at the helm, either in permanent or interim positions. Those appointments could be an indication of a new direction in which school boards want to head in trying to tackle some of the systemic issues, he says.

'One of the most important decisions'

Currently, multiple school boards in the Greater Toronto Area, including the York Catholic District School Board, Durham District School Board, Peel District School Board, and both Toronto's Catholic and public boards are in the hiring process. 

School board trustees are tasked with that job. 

"The director of education is responsible for every aspect of operating our system," said Alexander Brown, the newly elected chair of the TDSB and a trustee of six years.

"This is one of the most important decisions [the trustees] have to make as a body. You can't get it wrong."

Alexander Brown is the newly-elected chair of the TDSB. (TDSB)

Eleven TDSB trustees have now formed a committee that will make the appointment for that board. 

The decision will be made amid a series of high-profile incidents at various school boards in recent months, including at the TDSB, and as the province announced several changes to fight systemic racism, banning younger students from being suspended and phasing out academic streaming.

In June, the province also fired the director of education for the Peel District School Board after growing allegations of anti-Black racism and discrimination. That followed the release of a damning report into the way administrators handled widespread racism.

"We're talking about how systemic racism is also part of the education system, just like in policing and in the justice system," said James.

'We need leadership in education'

"We need leadership in education who will be ready to take up these issues," he said.

James said he hopes the new directors will be able to influence change, not only in school curriculums, but also encourage and support teachers to "start thinking about the diverse classrooms they're working in." 

TIffany Ford was a TDSB trustee between 2014 and 2018. (Jessica Laforet)

Tiffany Ford, a former TDSB trustee, said having Jackson in the interim director role is "historic" and hopes it sets the stage for a permanent director. 

"I was the only Black female trustee at the time," she said. "There would be pushback [on decision-making] for sure." 

Current chair Brown said the board is looking for change. 

"We're going to need change in the way we approach equity issues. We've had some issues come up. It doesn't seem to be going down." 

Jackson's term ends in October, but Brown said the board won't hesitate to appoint another interim director if the committee needs more time. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.