Monday, 19 March 2012

A Modest Proposal

A few hundred years ago, when Ireland was desperately poor, overcrowded, and under the thumb of England, Jonathan Swift, the Dean of Saint Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin who had become famous for the political satire Gulliver’s Travels, wrote a little piece titled “A Modest Proposal.” In it he suggested, with the painful literary equivalent of a straight face, that a solution to Ireland’s economic and overcrowding problems could be effected by simple cannibalism

The Irish heritage of Peterborough is very much alive, as this past weekend’s Saint Patrick’s Day festivities clearly indicated. We are indeed fortunate to have inherited the Irish convivial spirit while evolving out of the terrible poverty which drove so many out of Ireland in the nineteenth century and landed them in North America. 

Nevertheless, we now unfortunately find ourselves in a situation comparable to the one in which the Irish were locked from Swift’s day to the creation of the Republic in one important respect: taxation without representation. Or with very little.

Queen’s Park takes hundreds if not thousands of dollars from every Peterborough property tax payer every year to pay for our public schools, but has been steadily removing local authority over our school boards for the past forty years.

With just 10 elected Trustees serving nearly a quarter million constituents in the 7000 square kilometer Kawartha Pine Ridge area, there is almost no potential for close connections between communities and their representatives to the school board.

Worse, the peculiar “sliding scale” of representation dreamed up by the Harris government and left in place by the Liberals means that Ontario taxpayers aren’t treated equally. The Limestone Board in the Kingston area, for instance, is governed by nearly as many Trustees as KPR, but serves only about half the population – so each KPR Trustee represents twice as many property tax payers as each Limestone Trustee. And the ratios get worse as population within a board gets larger. 

With honoraria kept to little more than they could earn working part-time as a supermarket cashier, Trustees are expected to direct an institution with an annual budget of $377 million in what is essentially their spare time. The total compensation for all the Trustees, which is about the equivalent of what a KPR principal earns each year, implies that there is only about one human professional’s worth of time and brain-space devoted to public oversight of a massive organization serving more than 30,000 students. As documented in the previous post, Trustees need no special qualifications to hold their positions, unlike the situation with Boards of Governors of Trent University or the Board of Directors at the hospital.

With Trustees elected alongside mayors, councilors and reeves at municipal election time, they are almost always an afterthought. Whereas most Peterborough residents probably gave at least some thought to whether they’d prefer Daryl Bennett or Paul Ayotte as mayor, and a sizable number attended, watched, or read about public debates and campaign platforms, only the tiniest minority of citizens would have given any thought at all as to who they would prefer as school board Trustee. Yet Peterborough Trustees Roy Wilfong and Rose Kitney, along with their cohorts from Clarington, Northumerland and Peterborough county, are nominally in charge of overseeing a budget more than three times that of the city of Peterborough.

Despite this minimal awareness, our city is in fact a hotbed of interest in public education compared with the other municipalities served by KPR. Most Trustees were elected with the support of only about 15% of eligible voters, and all those outside Peterborough stood for election with few or no challengers for the position.

The Liberal government has made a bad situation worse. Instead of scrapping the Harris-devised scheme to minimize democratic control over schools, they’ve extended the Trustees’ term to four years in tandem with the municipal councils. On top of this, Bill 177, passed a few years ago in response to a mess made by Toronto Catholic board Trustees, put further restrictions on Trustees’ behaviour and actions, making the job even less enticing. And by leaving in place a formula basing the Trustees’ remuneration on enrolment figures, they’ve ensured that compensation has been dropping year after year.

Are Premier McGuinty, our MPP Jeff Leal, and their Liberal crew actually trying to make Trustees irrelevant, so they can have an excuse to simply centralize control of all aspects of schools at Queens’ Park?

KPR Trustee Gordon Gilchrist, representing the Port Hope-Cobourg area, has reportedly suggested that Ontario should in fact go this route, creating even larger boards with even less taxpayer representation. 

Do we really want to hand over control of our schools to Queen's Park?

 Not for the first time, I must beg to differ with Mr. Gilchrist’s opinion.

The following “modest proposal” bears none of the irony inherent in Swift’s title – its “modesty” is real, not satirical. We could drastically improve governance over the public schools that we pay for and rely on with three simple steps which would cost very little.

Let’s go Tim Horton’s one better – we’ll call it a “double double double.”

1) Double the number of Trustees.

A board of 20 members instead of 10 would give us one Trustee for every 12,000 taxpayers – about the same number of each of Peterborough’s city wards. That means a closer connection between each Trustee and her or his constituency. Peterborough would get at least five Trustees instead of two, reducing the deficit in control the city currently experiences at KPR. Twice the Trustees means more brain power for committee work, and less rubber-stamping of staff decisions.

2)  Double the Trustees’ honoraria.

More pay means we could ask Trustees to spend more time on the job, which means we might actually get a smidgen of supervision of our millions of tax dollars, as Trustees were intended to provide. If doubling the honoraria reduced the number of money-wasting farcical exercises like last year’s infamous accommodation review, it would already be more than worth the investment. But with more money devoted, maybe we’d also have a chance at attracting some competition for the positions.

3) Double the frequency of the Trustees’ elections.

Reducing the terms back to two years, like they were not so long ago, would give citizens the opportunity to contest decisions that are unresponsive to the community, like the WiFi boondoggle and the attempt to shutter PCVS, by challenging Trustees at the ballot box before the board can go too far down the wrong path.

If the commitment were only two years at a time, we might see even more competition for the positions, which can only be a good thing.

Moreover, we would then have to hold Trustee elections not only alongside current municipal elections, but again in the middle of each municipal term. This would put Trustees into the spotlight, as they wouldn’t be eternally lost at the bottom of the ballot devoted primarily to municipal officials. News media would be more likely to cover the elections, Trustees could campaign on specific ideas, and the public might actually get some sense of what it is Trustees do and what some of the current issues in school board management are.

What would this “modest proposal” cost a cash-strapped Ontario?

Almost nothing.

What would the public gain from this genuinely modest proposal?

A dramatic improvement in public school governance.

What would Queen’s Park gain?

Fewer headaches for the Ministry of Education, better management of tax dollars, and a more satisfied public.

If the current Liberal government wants to maintain a reputation for supporting public education, in contrast to their PC predecessors, why do they not take these modest steps to undo the democratic deficit on school boards imposed by Harris and his corporate-lackey cronies?

If we don’t demand some improvement in local school board governance, we’re giving the Liberals free rein to further centralize control of education. And as we’ve seen with other disastrous money-wasting initiatives run directly out of Queen’s Park, such as ORNGE and e-Health, it’s a safe bet that nightmares worthy of real Swiftian satire would shortly ensue. 


  1. Interesting thoughts as usual. Instead of diverting more funds to trustee system, maybe give principals greater direct control for their school's budget.

  2. nice job of defining the problem in these posts and helping us to start thinking about and formulating proposals, such as yours, to try and fix the problems. There's a lot a stake - the minds of our children and therefore the future of our society.