Our Schools/Our Selves: Winter 2003

Bringing light to the system: Toronto's Dissident trustees take on the Province
January 1, 2003

winter 2003On August 27th, 2001 four women, trustees on the TDSB (Toronto District School Board) meet with the Editorial board of the Toronto Star. It is one o'clock and they want to explain to why it is that in two hours Minister of Education, Elizabeth Witmer will announce that three Ontario school boards are now under Provincial supervision.

The Trustees, Paula Fletcher, Kathleen Wynne, Sheila Cary-Meagher and Shelley Carroll know that these senior editorial writers will be charged with taking a position on behalf of the most widely distributed newspaper in the province when Witmer seizes control of their board. There is a lot at stake in this conversation. It has been a long, exhausting six months, an intense public battle and now they sit in a sumptuously appointed meeting room overlooking the Toronto Harbour, while corporate executives playing hooky laze the late summer day away in the hundreds of sailboats dotting the lake below. To give context to this day's momentous news, they find they have to start at the beginning.

The journalists are crystal clear on the bare bones. They remember the Province taking control of education finance and forcing six Metro Toronto area school boards to amalgamate and become the largest board in Canada in January of 1998. They need reminding, however, that the TDSB was immediately set apart from the remaining 71 school boards in Ontario because the provincial government recognized that this board faced the greatest transition challenge and provided a whopping $??? million mitigation fund to phase in change over 4 years.

None of the women present today were trustees during the first three-year term of office of the TDSB. They were all education community activists, and their decision not to run in the first mega-city election was deliberate. It would be better, they reasoned, to stay outside the Board and continue to take on education's real enemy, Mike Harris. They would continue to organize their communities against the conservative agenda and support TDSB trustees in taking a stand for student funding. By the time the 2000 municipal election roles around, the TDSB is still being hammered by the provincial funding formula, so the four activist moms decide it is time to get on the Board and oppose the cuts from the inside .

Newly-elected Scarborough parent Pauline Ling comes with them to the Board. She has recently joined Wynne's organization, the Metro Parent Network, in her anger over Bill 74. It's impact on her community school has been enough to get her thinking that education seems to be headed in the wrong direction.

These five newcomers candidates hook up with four trustees, who have already spent three years on the new Board consistently opposing cuts and particularly school closures: Irene Atkinson, Sheila Ward, Elizabeth Hill and Stephnie Payne. The group has the makings of a sizeable voting block though not a majority. It will take a caucus structure to make their nine votes count.

Feeling the heat

The activists are greeted on the Board with equal measures of trepidation and resentment. In opposing the cuts, they have opposed both the provincial government and the majority of the first-term Board. The air is so tense between the caucus and first-term incumbents such as Codd, Gershon, Laskin and Moyer it forms a magnetic field, and all remaining rookie trustees scatter nervously to one pole or another. Pauline Ling, ill equipped for in-your-face political confrontation, bolts from the caucus. She has no problem with more passive forms of aggression, however, and spreads caucus gossip amongst its opponents. Fortunately she is replaced in the caucus by two of the strongest rookies elected, Bruce Davis and Nellie Pedro. Both are more qualified to take on the caucus tasks. But Ling has spread a poison. There is a rift so wide between the activist caucus and the other trustees that before the year is out, they refer to themselves as either Column A or Column B Trustees, Column B being the Caucus.

For a good part of the second term, trustees battle each other and staff through a month-long support staff strike and strategize to open up the TDSB budget process to the community for the first time. The new budget process is the biggest success of the first year of the term. Kathleen Wynne, as Vice Chair of Budget works endlessly with Budget Chair, Shelley Laskin and by June, the TDSB has a proper annual budget process for the first time. The model of slashing staffing and services piecemeal throughout the year and never in relation to one another - a model produced by director Marguerite Jackson and Board Chair Gail Nyberg -- has been shifted. The second term Board ends its first school year with very Public Community Budget Meetings. On the Board's final budget meeting day, Column B is, unfortunately, still in the minority and cuts are still approved. But the process is there.

Proposing a Needs-Based Budget

There has been little time, during their first year in office, for the activist trustees to learn much about the broader school-board community in Ontario. They know the provincial funding formula is causing many boards real pain but largely through the data and anecdotes collected annually by Annie Kidder's People for Education. It comes as a surprise when a majority of the Ottawa Carleton board takes the first giant step and refuses to approve their staff's budget. The staff, in compliance with the province, had proposed major cuts to schools and special education programming. The dissenting trustees get strong support from a grass roots group known as Our Schools Our communities (OSOC) and a singularly vocal Special Education Advisory Committee.

The Minister fails to levy the dreaded $5000 fine on the Ottawa Trustees. No one is asked to resign. Ottawa Director, Jim Greive, is simply ordered to implement his budget. He proceeds and the trustees are ordered to go through the motions of voting to approve his actions. But it rocks the world of trustees across the province. Toronto caucus trustees begin pondering outreach activities. Perhaps the key to getting the funding formula dumped is a co-ordinated resistance with other boards.

TDSB Chair, Irene Atkinson returns from the summer determined to make the most of her last three months in the Chair'soffice. She knows she will pay for her caucus participation when the board holds its annual Organizational Board Meeting in December. She has a bold plan to invest real money in a massive communication strategy to ignite community support. It will culminate in a broad-based consultation to create the first Needs-Based budget for the TDSB, flying in the face of the government's bottom-line focused funding.

The plan is easily approved with trustee support beyond the caucus. Atkinson has achieved Column A buy-in by leaving out a key piece of the puzzle - the action to be taken. The plan takes us to the development of a budget based on the real needs of our new school system but it ends there. The trustees approve the budget plan in principle (as well as its communication budget) without ever discussing what will be done with this budget once it exists.

Atkinson's plan brings hope to the TDSB labour groups. Having been part of failed coalitions between teachers, support staff, community groups and parents many times before, teacher leaders Jim McQueen and Larry Miyata and CUPE 4400 Pres. John Weatherup determine that now is the time to put real money and even bureaucratic infrastructure behind such a coalition - with its focus on the Needs-Based Budget. As Atkinson gets the rusty TDSB communications machine working on her plan, the coalition forms the Campaign For Public Education to get behind it.

Reaching out to other boards and hanging in at home

After the summer break of 2001, the caucus begins to reach out to the rest of the province through the Ontario Public School Board Association (OPSBA). At the OPSBA Fall symposium, when the participants are divided up for breakout discussion groups of either urban boards, rural boards or combination rural/urban boards, the urban board group has a conversation that is heretofore unheard of amongst trustees.

Discussion revolves around what to do about being unable to balance a budget for the coming year. Hamilton, London, Windsor, Toronto and Ottawa all express the same desperation. But the conversation bounces all over from community strategy to staff willingness to explore ways out of financial crisis to local media support. Toronto Trustee Gerri Gershon, a veteran column A trustee and OPSBA presidential hopeful, agrees as facilitator of the breakout exercise to see that this discussion continues, but she applies a condition. "So long as we all agree we aren't going to do anything illegal," says Gershon. Ottawa Trustee David Moen goes uncharacteristically quiet at this remark.

As the 2001/02 school year progresses, the budget issues consume the TDSB. In a by-election, the caucus manages to swell its numbers to eleven trustees with Stan Nemiroff. The TDSB now has an 11/11 split on all matters financial. Only community pressure on Column A trustees can provide a majority against the provincial cutbacks. The Atkinson plan is in full swing and the Campaign for Public Education is drumming up support for it. The Needs-Based Budget has been developed and branded the 'Need To Succeed' (NTS) Budget.

When Budget Chair, Shelley Laskin presents the completed NTS Budget to gathered media and public she delivers a 25-minute speech. She dedicates herself to it so convincingly that the public go home and go quiet for a few weeks thinking she intends to present it to the Ministry as the 2002/03 TDSB budget. But the whole community comes back to life at the beginning of May when new TDSB Director Dave Reid presents the staff's 'Compliance Budget,' with Laskin on the fence. In this new budget, staff propose that $90 million dollars will be hacked out of administration, school staffing, all non-provincially mandated programs and, of course, swimming pools.

Reporting the proceedings cut by cut, the co-operative Toronto media have enough material to keep Toronto citizens whipped up for a long battle. Meanwhile, the trustees have still never discussed what their end game might be. How far are individual trustees willing to push in the budget debate? No one wants to cut $90 million. No one believes the extra $371 million the Need To Succeed Budget would cost is ever coming. But no one has a suggestion as to what exactly to hold out for. No one wants to state for certain how far he or she is willing to go towards contravening the Education Act.

When Column B caucus Trustees, Shelley Carroll and Elizabeth Hill, arrive in Sault Ste. Marie for the OPSBA annual general meeting in June, sidebar conversations in every room revolve around which boards will balance and which will not. The province has already extended the deadline for budget submission once. Hamilton and Ottawa have developed actual deficit budgets and will vote on whether to submit them to the province in July Board meetings. Thames Valley, the London area board, Avon/Maitland, Waterloo Region and Blue Water District are all facing slash-and-burn budgets they can't condone. Toronto has already made headlines in unanimously rejecting their staff's first draft of a 'Compliance Budget'. With Laskin working the Column A side and Wynne leading Column B, the vote was a dramatic, crowd-pleasing 22/zip.

Getting it together

There are 90 minutes of free time on the second day of the AGM and Hamilton Chair; Judith Bishop arranges an informal meeting for boards who have yet to submit their budgets. It is a valiant attempt at coalition building on Bishop's part but it fails for two reasons. For one thing, it is readily apparent that a coalition is too much to expect of an unusual mix of 12 Boards of varying needs, especially at the eleventh hour. But the main reason it fails is because of the curious politics of OPSBA. For some, OPSBA is mainly a professional development vehicle where they can gain exposure to other boards' practices and useful research data. Most trustees in this category maintain that OPSBA should avoid overtly political acts although they actively engage in the firmly entrenched regional and internal politics around its executive structure. But a growing number of trustee members feel that since education in Ontario has been pushed into a partisan battle, then OPSBA should provide a war room for public trustee strategists.

Almost every board not already balanced is split into factions of 'Let's balance' and 'Let's not'. The margin might be 8/4, 9/2 or 11/11 but in almost every board's case there is one from each faction sitting in on Bishop's meeting. There is a circular discussion of how badly off each board will be if they approve their compliance budgets, but no one wants to reveal what their final strategy will be with the mix of politics in the room.

Toronto Trustees return home to a new draft of the Compliance Budget. This time the staff proposal is to gain Ministry approval to use $45 million of their own reserve severance fund, but the remaining $45 million (of $90 million cuts) is still there to hit students and schools. By June 29th, ten Column A trustees are prepared to declare a small victory and vote to approve the staff budget. Trustee Christine Ferreira, weighing enormous community pressure in her downtown ward against personal backlash from her Column A allies , stands with Column B to reject the Compliance Budget. The TDSB is still without a budget on a vote of 12/10.

When the caucus meets on Canada Day to strategize around their successful standoff with the province, Ferreira takes a pass but makes it clear she will stand with them against any cut to student programs and services. At least they have time to plan. The province, having discovered through polling that the electorate won't stand for school board eliminations, extends the budget deadline to August 2nd. By the end of the Canada Day session there is a media plan, a commitment to work closely with the Campaign For Public Education, which is miraculously still in full swing, and lastly a strategy to reach out to other holdout Boards to get together for a joint meeting.

The Trustee Summit

Hamilton Chair Judith Bishop agrees to host the event and then heads off to Newfoundland for the annual Candian School Boards' Association (CSBA) meeting. Column A Trustee Shelley Carroll takes on the organizing duties. The meeting is dubbed 'The Trustee Summit' and as Carroll sends the invitations out via email, news of the meeting spreads all the way to Newfoundland. Instantly Judith Bishop is under pressure from OPSBA veterans and right wing Ontario trustees. Carroll gets word to caucus members at the event to get to Bishop and form a social shield around her.

By July 18th, the day of the summit, Bishop and Carroll have a media feeding frenzy on their hands. The Hamilton Wentworth Board has enjoyed support from the Hamilton Spectator and local television station, CHCH, but now the full force of the Toronto and Provincial media descends. If nothing comes of the meeting itself, the two trustee organizers will know that, at the very least, they kept education funding on the front page right in the middle of summer.

Conservative spin-doctors try their darnedest to dim the spotlight on the Summit. Word goes out that Carroll and Bishop are paid NDP organizers. The spin backfires. When the Spectator researches Bishop, they gather enough material about her international history to publish a story that makes her sound like the Mother Theresa of community activism and childhood issues. Carroll turns out to be a suburban, partisan Liberal.

When trustees from twelve different boards sit down at the Summit, Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto are still defying the province. There are eight other boards there to support them but all have recently submitted balanced budgets. Trillium Lakelands trustee, Rick Johnson makes it clear he is attending not on behalf of his Board but in his capacity as OPSBA vice pres. to report back to the executive. Trustees who have balanced describe the cuts they've been forced to approve and forecast what point midway through the coming year they will slide into operating deficits. Some describe creative accommodations they've employed to appear balanced on paper, notably Peel and Thames Valley, and report they are still not sure the Ministry will approve them. The stories only strengthen the resolve of Hamilton and Ottawa to stand by their deficit budgets.

Holding the line

Back in Toronto the next day, the Column B caucus trustees finally begin to grapple with the taboo subject, what's the end game. Column A have already declared theirs by caving in to the Compliance Budget on June 29th. As the newspapers have already noted, the Column B caucus is a mixed bag of NDP stalwarts, McGuinty Liberals and Paul Martin Liberals, a reformed Tory NDPer, a labour-centric Liberal, and even a communist or two. Some have said they will resign on principle, some that they will resign rather then lose their house, some that they will stand firm and challenge the province to levy a fine or remove them.

The 11 caucus members are almost certain that Christine Ferreira will continue to vote with them. They know from the Summit that Ottawa and Hamilton won't cave. After the meeting, the trustees leave all talk of resigning behind and pledge to stand firm. Between the three Boards, the province will have to remove 29 trustees, if it chooses to go that route. Some of the 29 are popular school board representatives in Tory constituencies. The Toronto caucus trustees decide it is worth betting the province will avoid risking losing those seats.

The Summit convenes once more on August 12th at the Peel Regional School Board. By now the Ministry deadline has passed, Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto have all undergone invasive and blatantly political audits by provincial order. The Ontario education community holds its collective breath and waits for the province to mete out harsh consequences to defiant trustees.

The chief benefit of this late summit is the final detailed information on how other urban boards have balanced and the news that the Ministry of Education has approved their various accommodations. It is clear the province wants everyone balanced, even if only on paper. The Harris/Eves government has money to hand out but they won't award it until the 2003 run-up to an election. Ottawa, Hamilton and Toronto Boards continue to refuse to gut their school systems now and wait for the money to trickle back in the election year. It is too great a risk when the PC Education Act leaves so much of the control in administrative hands. Putting school system money back exactly where trustees and community want it might end up to be an even bigger battle than the current one.

The No Cuts Budget

The information gathered at the Peel Summit inspires Sheila Cary-Meagher to try her hand at drafting a TDSB Budget. When she applies every accommodation or creative measure used by balanced boards across the province to the TDSB shortfall she finds she can arrive at a balanced budget without going anywhere near schools. The caucus begins talking it up.

On August 21st, with less than a week until the date the Minister has determined she will decide the future of the three standoff boards, Budget Chair Laskin calls an informal budget discussion. Laskin, Chair Cansfield, Director Dave Reid and Finance Officer Don Higgins are seated at one end of the table. Most of the caucus are sitting opposite them. Down the sides, various column A trustees are reading copies of Toronto Life. Writer John Lorinc has followed the 'Need To Succeed' process and over several pages he illustrates how, in his opinion, Laskin failed.

When Cary-Meagher presents her 'No-Cuts Budget' the management end of the table refuses to let it see the light of day. Cansfield will not call a Board meeting to have it endorsed. Laskin and Higgins refuse to analyze it. Director, Dave Reid wears his trademark sanctimonious smirk.

Cary-Meagher, a senior trustee with a very traditional faith in by-laws, keeps calm. With twelve votes she knows she can requisition a meeting and, with the Minister about to lower the boom, surely the TDSB will come together and vote unanimously for her 'No-Cuts Budget'. Then it would be up to the Minister to publicly refuse to treat the TDSB as fairly as she would the rest of the province. But days pass, Christine Ferreira has gone cottaging and can't be found and Cansfield will not agree, as Chair, to be the twelfth vote and schedule a meeting.

Now the end game for Column A and the Director becomes crystal clear. Take the activists to the edge and let them jump over. Pray the Province will remove them so life can get back to normal where we don't actually have to resist the destructive education agenda.

But there is not one community organizer in this Column A group. They continue to believe that when parents come to protest cuts they are the isolated few. They fail to comprehend that when parents begin to coalesce with education workers their knowledge and understanding of what is needed explodes off the scale and they spread the knowledge wherever they go with their children. Premier Eves has phone polled all summer and he knows that trustee removal is not an option.

The struggle continues

So after two hours of telling their story, senior Star editor, Bob Hepburn, asks Wynne, Fletcher, Cary-Meagher and Carroll, the original activist moms, if they would like to come watch Minister Witmer on the television in his office. Education beat reporter, Tess Kalinowski watches their reaction and takes down their comments as they witness Elizabeth Witmer placing their Board and that of Hamilton under supervision. They're sad, they are terrified, but they knew it was coming. The Minister had done the same in Ottawa the week before.

Over the next three months of supervision, the caucus trustees will be accused again and again of waging a war that has nothing to do with children. The Director will misrepresent his rejected Compliance Budget as having minimal or no cuts to the classroom both to the media and before large assemblages of principals. As the whole Board waits for the Supervisor to find $90 million in cuts, only the caucus trustees continue to fight. Combing the system for any staff member willing to talk, even though all have been told not to, the Column B caucus throws every program or service rumoured to be on Christie's chopping block to the newspapers, thus inoculating them as Christie defensively claims not to be considering them.

The caucus trustees toss and turn at night. Christie will make cuts that can only be blamed on the province, it's true, but for as long as he stays, an unfettered bureaucracy runs the $2 billion system and leaves democratically-elected trustees in the dark. They wonder how they will work with Reid and his team when Supervisor Christie packs up and leaves.

But there are a few blessings to count, and in the poisonous atmosphere the provincial supervisor creates, the caucus struggles to remember them. They know that whatever else happens, the official Funding Formula Review, which was originally planned to be a pre-election publicity piece for the Harris/Eves Tories, will now have to recommend real money to undo poll damage. And perhaps most important, the budget standoff has brought such light to the whole system that parents now know what their children Need To Succeed and they will continue to go after it.

Shelley Carroll is a Trustee at the Toronto District Board of Education.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2003 issue of Our Schools/Our Selves.