The180

Considering unelected school trustees

Toronto's school board is plagued by issues. The government of Quebec says it wants to end trustee elections, after abysmal voter turnout. Other jurisdictions have had to step in and take over from problematic boards. Writer John Lorinc wonders if it's time for all Canadians to stop electing trustees.
Hundreds gathered outside Toronto District School Board headquarters to protest a program that would see Toronto schools partner with the Confucius Institute from China., in 2014. It's one of several problems to plague the board in the last few years. (CBC)

The Toronto District School Board has been plagued by problems this year, so much so that an expert panel was struck to try to fix it. 

Just last week, Ontario's education minister said she would adopt some of the panel's recommendations, but would not follow the panel's advice to take the board under her supervision. 

If she had, it wouldn't have been the first time an elected school board in this country had its power taken away. 

In 2011, the Nova Scotia government fired a regional school board, claiming it failed to complete its duties. And in Quebec, the province has promised to end the practice of electing trustees altogether. 

All of that has writer John Lorinc wondering if any Canadian school boards really need elected trustees. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length. 

Why should we reconsider electing school trustees? 

Over the past 15-20 years, provincial governments across Canada have moved to really change the way education funding flows. So for most people, part of their property tax goes to schools, and then the provincial government contributes the rest. School trustees, for the most part, have had their taxing power withdrawn. It used to be that they could add to the property tax, they could levy a school property tax, and since the 1990s that power has systematically been removed from them. Consequently, all the big funding decisions, which are really the things that politicians do best, are made by the provincial governments... The trustees don't do that thing that we elect politicians to do, which is make decisions about how much taxes they levy, and how to spend it... So we need some form of governance over school districts, and those boards need to have some sort of accountability mechanism to the broader public. So the question I'm asking is, do we need to do that via an elected trustee, or are there other ways of governing these institutions, which perform such a critical function in our society?  

What would a school board look like if we didn't elect trustees? 

We could do a number of things: we could have a mixed model. Perhaps we could have some trustees who are elected and some trustees who are appointed by different stakeholder groups, for example. So you could have the provincial government appointing some trustees, and the municipal government appointing some trustees.... So you could have this kind of mixed model, and the mixed model functions in various settings. I cover local politics in Toronto, and I'm quite familiar with the governance structures. You have lots of operating entities where the boards are some elected officials and some appointed officials, and you get a mix of skills that way; you have this combination. And I think that's perfectly healthy and it works just fine. 

Why would you expect either city councillors or unelected officials to do any better than the trustees that are being elected now by the community? 

Well, part of the problem, as I see it, is that school trustees are elected on a very thin mandate. In Quebec, for example, which has just moved to eliminate school trustee elections, you had turnout rates in the low single digits. If you think about that, you've got hundreds or perhaps low thousands of voters who are electing an individual to make these very big decisions about how the money is spent... This is a governance problem, right? Whenever you have a system where you're electing individuals, you want a robust turnout, because that creates a strong sense of representation.

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.

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