Thursday, 8 March 2012

Ontario's own "Theatre of the Absurd": already in a board room near you!

The sub-par performance of our “democratically-neglected” Trustees showed little sign of improvement at February’s meeting as board members reacted defensively when they saw their own behaviour mirrored back to them by PCVS students wearing blindfolds. You can watch some well-captured video by CHEX-TV right here. You can also read a few words about the meeting in this Examiner article.
Faced with Trustees’ disregard for the very people whose money they spend and whom they are supposed to serve, PCVS students responded creatively, showing the out-of-town, out-of-touch contingent how they come across to the Peterborough public by coming to the meeting wearing blindfolds

In the video, Peterborough Trustee Roy Wilfong compliments students on having made their point “perfectly.” Some out-of-town Trustees, however, were visibly unnerved at finding themselves suddenly unable to avoid the truth of their situation. Appearing incapable of functioning with the truth staring them in the face, they scrambled to figure out how to respond, with all but Rose Kitney and Wilfong retreating from the room to confer. Before they could find some pretense to have the students physically ejected, in spite of the fact that they were actually respectfully adhering to the Board’s refusal to allow anyone to speak on the topic of PCVS, the students removed the blindfolds and spent the rest of the meeting covering their faces with their hands. Cyndi Dickson, representing the Brighton area, tried unsuccessfully to have the entire meeting adjourned.

The ever-eloquent Gordon Gilchrist once again displayed the little regard he appears to have for the people whose taxes pay his own honorarium, reportedly asking students on the way out, “are we supposed to be impressed?” You’ll remember Gilchrist’s own "impressive" resume, which includes tax evasion and widespread but unrequited demands for his resignation following an anti-immigrant rant published in a local newspaper.

Just as they had done with the citizens attempting to warn them of the dangers of Wi-Fi in schools, KPR Trustees have decided again that people with perspectives different from their own don’t have a right to be heard in the publicly-funded board room of Fisher Drive. Having lifted the six-month “ban” on Wi-Fi discussion as of February’s meeting, PCVS is now to be verboten

Naturally, they got an earful from anti-Wi-Fi activists, which you can see later in the video and read about in this Examiner report, noting the widespread concern across Europe and on the part of the World Health Organization about the long-term negative health effects of radiation in schools. Ontario’s Catholic teachers have publicly warned against Wi-Fi in schools, and the public school elementary teachers union (ETFO) is studying the situation.

Is it not baffling that Trustees and the Director of Education have the power to determine what subjects the very people whose tax dollars pay for the schools they run, the offices they work from, and their own salaries, honoraria, and expenses, may speak to them about in a public Board meeting? Yet this is just one more symptom of the sick state of public governance of our schools.  

The current crop of KPR Trustees, however well-intentioned they may be in their own minds, have in practice demonstrated little regard for important pieces of provincial policy, ignored the educational success story at PCVS going on right under their noses, turned a deaf ear to the community’s wishes, and seem to have entirely forgotten that the well-being of students such as the ones who sat before them in the boardroom is the sole purpose of the Board’s existence.

How is it that you can get a better response from a sales clerk at Sears to your legitimate complaints than you can from Trustees overseeing the management of a school board that automatically takes hundreds if not thousands of dollars in property tax from each and every adult Peterborough resident every year, plus twice that much in other provincial taxes?

Answer: the Sears clerks get paid more. They spend more time on the job each year. And they can’t simply refuse to resign when requested to do so after making public comments offensive to the people who pay the bills.

The post “Where Do We Go From Here,” part two (November 25th) highlighted the bizarre nature of the formula the Harris government put in place to reduce local control over the public education system to the barest minimum possible, resulting in the equivalent of a single human’s time each year being devoted to public oversight of a school board covering 7000 square kilometers, serving more than 30,000 students, spending more than $350 million public dollars contributed by more than 200,000 taxpayers.

To put the truly absurd nature of this situation into perspective, let’s compare with the governance of two other large local institutions which receive significant amounts of provincial tax dollars each year: Trent University and the Peterborough Regional Health Centre.

Trent: $65 million, two dozen governors

You’ll see from a glance at page 3 of Trent’s financial statements from last year that it received $65 million in public funding. You’ll see from this list that Trent’s Board of Governors is comprised of twenty-five individuals. You’ll see from these biographies that many of these people have extensive professional management experience, advanced degrees, decades of contributions to the university, or in fact research and teach there currently.
You’ll notice from a glance at the PRHC’s community report that it received $190 million Ontario tax dollars last year. This PRHC webpage tells you that the hospital is governed by a Board of Directors with thirteen voting members, augmented by three non-voting ex-officio members and another thirteen community members, for a total of twenty-nine. You’ll notice that many of these people also have extensive high-level management experience, advanced degrees, and professional histories in health care. 

PRHC: $190 million, twenty-nine directors and community reps

 And what about the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, which spends more public money each year than Trent and the PRHC combined, and on which tens of thousands of people rely day in and day out?

Ten publicly-elected Trustees plus one First Nations representative. And what are their qualifications? Take a minute to click through the Trustees’ names to see their supposed “bios.” The ones that are not entirely blank are filled with nothing but nice words and school board rhetoric – with no discussion whatsoever of professional qualifications or management experience.  

Apparently, the only qualification necessary to become a Trustee is the ability to attract the votes of about 15% of the adults residing in your area at municipal election time, most of which will be cast based on mere name recognition. Bravely, armed only with the support of about 5000 people who know almost nothing about you or your responsibilities, you’ll now take on, in your spare time, on behalf of more than 200,000 taxpayers, the governance of a massive machine churning through hundreds of millions of public dollars every year.

Sound daunting?

Is it any wonder that vast amounts of money are wasted every year on initiatives that go nowhere, or on technology that sits there unused, and no one notices? Is it any wonder that policy documents go unrevised for years? Is it any wonder that KPR’s most effective and most popular high school can be targeted for closure, and its closest rival in these respects, Cobourg West, be next on the chopping block? Is it any wonder that rubber-stamping questionable management decisions is the order of the day, every day? 

Yes, our democratically-elected representatives to Queen’s Park, local MPP Jeff Leal included, officially sanction this sad state of affairs in which school board managers have virtual carte blanche to spend public money, and can even go so far as to try to shut down the community core of the board's biggest city despite ongoing calls from the Mayor, city council, doctors, neighbourhood residents, business-owners, parents, students and teachers not to, and to spend those same people’s money instead on huge amounts of unnecessary technology that can’t be doing the health of their children or grandchildren any good.

To add insult to injury, there isn’t even anyone you can complain to at Queen’s Park about school board mismanagement, as discussed in this article from the People for Education website. 

How does that self-styled “Education Premier” look now?   

And what is Jeff Leal going to do about this mess now that his party's failure to fix Harris-era anti-democratic policy threatens to undermine the integrity of his own community

1 comment:

  1. Brent, Thanks for another well-researched post. As infuriating as the behaviour of the KPRDSB is, I am afraid that the problem is in part systemic. The Ministry of Ed has little control over school boards, and Trustees are required to support their directors of education. We need to find out more about Bill 177.