Last March, the Minister of Education appointed the Toronto District School Board Governance Advisory Panel(“Advisory Panel”), to consult and make recommendations with respect to structural and procedural changes to the Toronto District School Board.  The Advisory Panel was constituted in response to an earlier review of the Toronto District School Board led by external consultant Margaret Wilson, which concluded that underlying the governance dysfunction within the board was a “culture of fear” and “lack of trust”.[1]  

The mandate and scope of the Advisory Panel was to “consult on governance structures that would better enable trustees to focus on broader policy issues in balance with responsiveness to local concerns.”[2]   The Advisory Panel recently released its report.[3] The report identifies a variety of structural challenges some of which are not unique to the Toronto District School Board and are therefore worth considering for their wider application to school board trustees across the province.

In assessing how to strike an appropriate balance between policy and local issues, the Advisory Panel identified the need for clarification of the role of school board trustees, noting that while the Education Actrequires that a board of trustees develop and ensure the implementation of a multi-year strategic plan, there are often more immediate pressures which compete for the attention of the trustees.

In particular, the Advisory Panel observed that there is an inherent tension between the school board trustee’s role as the voice of their community, and their statutory duty to act as a unified governing body.  School board trustees are elected by their local communities, and within those communities are expected to speak for their constituents as a group as well as  represent “their schools” and advance individual student needs.  Once elected,  however, school board trustees have a statutory obligation to make decisions in the best interests of the school board as a whole and all of its students.    

In addition to navigating these competing pressures, school board trustees must recognize which issues are strictly operational and therefore under the purview of staff, and those which may be appropriately addressed by a school board trustee.  Yet the Advisory Panel’s Report points out that relatively little formal orientation and ongoing training is available for school board trustees.  The Advisory Panel recommended that school board trustees be required to attend comprehensive governance training immediately upon taking office as well as participate in ongoing professional development throughout their term.

The Report also identified the important role the Chair of the school board plays with respect to good governance.  Despite the short one year term of office, the Chair assumes significant leadership and governance responsibilities, including presiding over trustee meetings, and in conjunction with the Director of Education establishing the meeting agenda and ensuring that all trustees have the background information required to participate meaningfully in debate and decision-making.  In addition, the Chair is the public spokesperson for the school board, and is responsible under the Education Act for ensuring that the board of trustees remains focussed on its mission, vision, and multi-year strategic plan.

Given the breadth and depth of these responsibilities, the Advisory Panel recommended that the board of trustees develop requisite criteria for candidates, including but not limited to “governance experience and training, conflict-management and consensus-building skills, and demonstrated experience working with city-wide and/or board-wide issues”.[4]  The Advisory Panel further suggested that the board of trustees annually evaluate the Chair’s performance measured against these criteria, the Chair’s statutory responsibilities, and board policy.

The Advisory Panel also suggested that a clear distinction of roles, and a relationship of trust between the Chair and the Director of Education is essential to good governance.  The Chair has a responsibility to ensure that school board trustees are able to monitor the implementation of the strategic plan through the receipt of regular reports.  The Chair must also assist school board trustees in developing the means to hold the organization accountable through oversight of the Director of Education as the only employee directly accountable to the board of trustees.

The Director of Education has a duty to intervene when school board trustees attempt to exert individual influence outside the board room, for example by communicating directly with staff to request reports which do not serve the best interests of the school board as a whole and have not been approved by the board of trustees.

The ability of the Chair and the Director of Education to reconcile these and other multi-faceted features of the governance relationship, and to be seen as working together in the best interests of the school board, can set the tone for the rest of the organization.  The Advisory Panel recommended that the board of trustees engage in regular self-assessments to measure its effectiveness in realizing the goals set out in the multi-year strategic plan.[5]

Also highlighted in the Advisory Panel’s Report was the need for accountability and transparency with respect to the recruitment, hiring and placement of principals and senior staff.  The Advisory Panel commented that the practice of school board trustees sitting on interview panels for supervisory officers led to the potential for undue influence of personal preferences, resulting in interference in succession planning, service and program delivery in schools, and a negative impact on staff morale.[6]

In a statement released December 11, 2015, Minister of Education Liz Sandals responded to the Advisory Panel Report by stating that she intended to give new interim Director of Education, John Malloy, the Toronto District School Board and TDSB trustees “the opportunity to make the necessary governance and operational changes “, and that the Ministry will support the Toronto District School Board in implementing recommendations such as clarifying the roles of school board trustees.  The Minister also stated that the Ministry would “consult with our education partners on the recommendations that could have province-wide implications.” The Advisory Panel identified governance challenges which have led to sometimes dire consequences at the Toronto District School Board.  In analysing the causes, the Advisory Panel commented that, while the size of the Toronto District School Board was a complicating factor, its geographic and demographic profile was not at the root of its governance dysfunction.  This conclusion is supported by a survey of other school boards in the province, many of which have experienced governance challenges similar to those described in the Report. The Advisory Panel’s analysis and recommendations, as well as further Ministry consultation, will provide a focus on these complex issues.