Saying she has lost faith that The Toronto Catholic District School Board can fix its financial mess, Education Minister Kathleen Wynne has taken a first step toward seizing the board’s purse strings by sending an investigator to review its finances.
If veteran school board official Pierre Filiatrault is not convinced within one week that Catholic trustees can both balance their books and change their spending habits, he will recommend Minister Wynne appoint a supervisor to run the board’s finances.
“By appointing an investigator, I am declaring publicly I have lost confidence in the board’s ability to manage its financial affairs,” said Minister Wynne yesterday. She said she is giving the investigator only one week because she already has such a detailed report on trustees’ spending abuses from adviser Norbert Hartmann.
“I don’t do this lightly; it’s a serious step, and I wouldn’t have ordered an investigator unless I was very concerned,” said Minister Wynne, noting the Education Act says the province may not take over a school board until its concerns have been verified by an outside investigator.
Minister Wynne said she is troubled not only by suggestions some trustees are still putting in for expenses they have been told should not be allowed, but also that the board has refused to stick to a multi-year plan to wipe out its deficit, approving a proposed $13 million shortfall and pledging not to lay off any staff.
“The deficit is growing rather than decreasing, and if trustees haven’t stopped (putting in unauthorized receipts) even after the Hartmann report, that’s a huge problem,” said Minister Wynne yesterday, just hours after calling board chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller at home to give her the news.
While Ms. LeBlanc-Miller said “provincial takeover is not something anybody looks forward to, if that’s what it takes for the public to regain confidence in the board, then that’s what we should do.”
The move comes after weeks of allegations of trustee misspending on everything from meals with alcohol to hotel minibars and even a trip to the Dominican Republic, at taxpayers’ expense.
Trustees also had voted to give themselves health benefits, which is not permitted, and many kept office furniture and cellphones after they left office.
In a scathing report released May 7, Mr. Hartmann chronicled years of overspending by trustees that made them among the biggest spenders in the province – at about $100,000 each per year. By comparison, at The Dufferin-Peel Catholic board, which is roughly the same size, trustees spend $27,000 per year. Toronto public trustees spend about $67,000 per year.
Ms. LeBlanc-Miller said yesterday that “while the results of Hartmann’s findings were extremely disappointing and not something I am proud of, we have to deal with it in a manner that is transparent and restores public confidence.”
Former board chair Oliver Carroll said he thinks the board has a chance to persuade the investigator it can put its financial house in order by re-opening the budget at a special board meeting planned for tomorrow night and thinking of another way to reduce the deficit without sweeping layoffs or cutting cherished literacy and kindergarten programs.
But Ms. LeBlanc-Miller says given the board expects enrolment to fall by another 1,000 students this fall, “we simply need fewer teachers.” Yet because the board voted earlier this month against layoffs, it has now passed the deadline by which it must give teachers proper layoff notice, a situation Ms. LeBlanc-Miller calls “very restrictive.”
Minister Wynne called the board chair and education director to an emergency meeting Friday at her Queen’s Park office to discuss the situation in more detail, and said she would take the weekend to decide her next step and announce that today. However, trustee Maria Rizzo released an open letter to Minister Wynne on Saturday pleading with the province to take over the board “and save us from ourselves!” Minister Wynne said that had little to do with her decision to move a day early.
Mr. Filiatrault will work with a ministry auditor to conduct the week-long review. The investigator is expected to turn his recommendations in to Minister Wynne by June 4. Meanwhile, the accounting firm of Ernst and Young already is working with individual trustees on drafting plans to repay any unauthorized expenses.
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Jimmy Mac, after a May 26, 2008 article by Louise Brown and Kristin Rushowy in The Toronto Star