Where is our local voice? School board should speak out about Ford’s classroom plans

By Roderick Benns

These are tumultuous times in education in Ontario. Regular strike action from educators these past few months is drawing attention to the Conservative government’s plans for education, which involve larger class sizes, e-learning without clear regard for planning and internet infrastructure, and a suggested pay raise for educators far below inflation.

Education workers don’t much like the government’s plan; neither, apparently do parents.

That’s the unsettled backdrop. At the forefront of all of this are local school boards. And not all school boards are created equal. That is, each one has its own personality, cultivated from hundreds of decisions (and non-decisions) that it makes.

It should be noted that school boards – unlike, say, a city council – do not have the same powers to set an independent direction. Even more so than municipalities, they exist entirely at the whim of the province.

While school boards have elected trustees who meet regularly, our trustees are not free to speak their mind on these important issues. Instead, the chair of the board of Trillium Lakelands District School Board (TLDSB), Bruce Reain, is its only elected voice, not an unusual scenario in board governance.

In an email response to some Advocate questions, Reain says “the school board speaks as one voice on decisions that have been made.”

“Only the board as a whole, not any one individual trustee has the authority to make decisions or to take any action,” he adds.

That being said there is room for creativity and more vigorous advocacy, as York Region District School Board has recently demonstrated. York Region’s board decided to voice its frustration with the government’s e-learning proposal directly to the minister of education in a public letter from its chair, Juanita Nathan. Other Greater Toronto Area boards have done the same thing.

In their letter they note that “…the online requirement of two courses for students graduating in 2023- 2024 would result in significant human resource and financial costs.”

However, the Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford believes it will be saving money, demonstrating a shallow understanding of what is involved for successful e-learning strategies.

The York board further notes that “findings suggest that students at risk of not graduating may further be adversely affected by these online requirements.”

“It is therefore critical to consider the effects of this policy on students with language and accessibility barriers, and students who face historic and systemic barriers, such as Indigenous and racialized youth and youth in care.”

It’s all in the design – and that’s what has York Board understandably worried — and why it should worry TLDSB. The Ford government has shown no predilection for thoughtful planning across many files, from its greenbelt missteps, to revamping regional governments, to even producing legible license plates.

As the York chair writes to the minister, “As a Board of Trustees…we would ask you, as Education Minister, to report on your commitment to conduct a transparent in-depth review, which includes broadband requirements, access to technology, professional learning opportunities, accessibility requirements, budgetary requirements and proposed timelines.”

To our knowledge, none of this has been done.

But back to our local school board. We asked Reain what TLDSB was doing to draw attention to concerns that its trustees may have, such as writing a letter to the minister, as the York Region board did.

“At this point in time we have not planned to write a letter to the Minister of Education,” he writes.

Mainly this is because our board – like many others – relies on its association, the Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) “to advocate for us on our behalf,” he notes.

The Advocate spent time going through the information on the OPSBA platforms. In short, OPSBA does not seem to be very active, nor does it appear to take a particular stand. There was some good information from 2019 in which they talk about class sizes and the challenges of e-learning – but nothing recent and relevant to these fundamental questions about proposed changes to our education system.

Reain writes that, “each school board has trustee representatives that sit at OBSPA regional and executive tables — we have every opportunity to have our voice, issues, and concerns heard at these meetings and are fully apprised of letters written on our behalf by OPSBA to the government.”

However, we pointed out to Reain that OPSBA seems mostly silent and that TLDSB has some unique issues, such as our massive geographical size, internet accessibility concerns, increasing classroom violence, and our good fortune to have the International Baccalaureate program at I.E. Weldon Secondary School.

“If we rely on OPSBA to speak for us, then how will our local issues be vetted?” we wanted to know.

However, the Advocate only received a reply thanking us for our comments.

This is not a moment in time for complacency in education. We need a vigorous defense of what works and what doesn’t work at the local level and to communicate that clearly to the province.

We need creativity and political courage and for this to be directed to the minister of education, not rely on a sleepy board association to hope it is mounting a reasonable defense.

It’s time for TLDSB’s board to engage with the minister of education and to advocate on behalf of our students.

–with files from Joli Scheidler-Benns

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