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Posts Tagged ‘Breaking-Up TDSB’

“Too big, too unwieldy and utterly dysfunctional.” That’s a neat summary of the mounting criticisms leveled against the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) five short years ago. The problems were so acute that former Deputy Education Minister Charles Pascal was urging the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government to consider other models for running school boards, including breaking it up into smaller administrative units.  The Toronto Star‘s Ontario politics columnist Martin Regg Cohn saw the TDSB’s dysfunctional governance as evidence that trustees should be abolished and boards dissolved, once and for all.

Senior educational leadership at Canada’s largest school board is about to change, once again, and it raises anew questions about the viability of the existing order.  Four years after joining the TDSB, Dr. John Malloy, who was set to retire as Director in November 2020, is now leaving August 1 and heading to California to become chief superintendent at San Ramon Valley Unified School District, a small California school district near San Francisco.  He’s jumping ship just before the 2020-21 school year resumes and while educators everywhere are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and how to safely reopen schools in September of 2020. 

Malloy’s surprise announcement sparked a wave of social media congratulations, mostly from his close political allies and friends in the upper echelons of K-12 education.  Once the initial stir had subsided, tougher questions came to the fore: Why was Dr. Malloy leaving the TDSB colossus and going to a tiny school district in, of all places, Donald Trump’s America? Who would steer the TDSB though the toughest phase of the COVID-19 crisis — the complex and challenging reopening of regular classes? And, perhaps most significantly, what had Malloy accomplished during his relatively short four-year tenure? 

The mammoth TDSB is a sprawling mega-city school district with a budget of more than $3-billion, encompassing 583 schools, enrolling  247,000 students and employing some 40,000 staff.  The Director is supported by four Associate Directors, and reports to an elected board of 22 public school trustees. In terms of size, it is the fourth largest school district in North America.

The TDSB was founded on January 20, 1953 as the Metropolitan Toronto School Board (MTSB), a “super-ordinate umbrella board” to coordinate activities and to apportion tax revenues equitably across the six anglophone and later a francophone school boards within Metro Toronto. The current TDSB was established on January 1, 1998 when the six anglophone metro school boards and MTSB merged into one massive school district. It was unwieldy from the beginning and top-heavy with layers of administration and empowered trustees. A series of initial talks about de-amalgamation, proposed in 2008 by then Education Minister Wynne, went nowhere. 

During the five years prior to Malloy’s arrival, the TDSB lurched from crisis to crisis, and shed two of its chief superintendents, Chris Spence and Donna Quan, each time in the midst of controversies. Director Spence (2009–2013) resigned in the wake of a plagiarism scandal and subsequently had his teaching license revoked (2016).  Dr. Quan, appointed as Acting Director in 2013, left in December 2015 to work under contract with the York University Faculty of Education and the Ministry of Education.  A provincial investigation during 2014-15 conducted by independent consultant Margaret Wilson provided a scathing review and ample evidence of “a culture of fear” within the TDSB, and a toxic environment unrecognized by either experienced trustees or senior administration. 

Current Director John Malloy was hired on January 4, 2016, as a “healer,” initially on an 18-month interim basis. He was essentially parachuted-in from the Ministry of Education where he was Assistant Deputy Minister and Chief Student Achievement Officer. Prior to his short Ministry stint, he was Director of the Hamilton-Wentworth District Board of Education (HWDSB). Closing eight schools in the HWDSB landed him in controversy and precipitated his departure in 2014 from Hamilton to the Ministry. He was a seasoned career administrator who worked his way up the ladder, moving from board-to-board, starting out as a principal with the Metropolitan Separate School Board at Cardinal Carter and Cardinal Newman high schools.   

Malloy brought peace to the conflict-ravaged Toronto DSB and embraced an explicitly progressive equity agenda in tune with the former Wynne government. From 2016 onward, the school district was largely spared from previous Muslim religious freedom protests and violent racist incidents. As Director, Malloy invested much of his time and energy into a TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force and in advancing its core mission. 

The TDSB’s policy of offering school choice for students and parents ran counter to Malloy’s agenda for promoting equity of opportunity and outcomes.  In his introductory video, explaining the Equity Task Force, he professed to be a champion of the board’s ” long-standing commitment to equity and inclusion” and expressed concern that it iwas not being fully met, judging from the persisting inequities affecting ‘racialized’ and ‘marginalized’ students.  His lead facilitator, Liz Rykert went further in identifying the supposed source of those inequities: “There are barriers, creating divisions with schools, or between schools. The impact has been more inequitable outcomes.”

Alternative schools for the arts exemplified one of those barriers to equity and targeting them got the Director into hot water with students and parents in those politically-active, upwardly-mobile communities.  On October 24, 2017,  facing a severe public backlash, Malloy distanced himself from a TDSB draft report recommendation calling for the phasing out of the board’s arts-focused schools. Those schools survived the TDSB initiative. 

Malloy fully embraced the recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed at addressing inequities faced by Indigenous students in the system. It led him to support a plan to remove the use of the word “chief” from all job titles out of respect for Indigenous communities, even though it was not explicitly recommended in the T&R report. It attracted critical fire in some quarters. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee did not mince any words in describing the move as a “ridiculous” example of political correctness. “It does nothing for the cause of indigenous rights, ” he wrote.  “In fact, by making something out of nothing, it discredits the cause, tainting it with the scent of wild-eyed zealotry.”  

The June 2018 election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government put Malloy in a difficult spot, since his elected board, chaired by Robin Pilkey, was aligned more with the NDP opposition at Queen’s Park.  Pilkey’s predecessor Marit Stiles was now NDP Education Critic and fiercely opposed to much of the PC “back to basics” education agenda. It was the TDSB that passed the first of many public board resolutions in the Summer of 2018 condemning the Ford government’s plan to re-instate the 1998 Health and Sex Education curriculum.  This did not endear the Director to the Fordites now inhabiting the Ministry of Education. 

Most Directors of Education spearhead Strategic Planning initiatives aimed at putting their stamp on future directions.  At the TDSB, Malloy’s administration produced an April 2019 “Vision for Learning” embracing a three-point plan for student improvement, enhanced learning culture, and shared leadership. “Equity, well-being and achievement,” in that order, were his priorities, and they were to be embedded in an inclusive school culture. “Shared leadership, productive working relationships, trust, high expectations, and collective efficacy” were the official buzzwords of his administration. It was abundantly clear that they did not really align with the new order in Doug Ford’s Ontario education world. 

Leaving in the first year of a Multi-Year Strategic Plan and during the most challenging phase of the pandemic strikes close observers as odd timing.  After only four years at TDSB, and following a series of leadership changes from 2009 to 2016, Malloy leaves with considerable unfinished business. While his personal legacy will be generally positive, he moved on before he really made a lasting mark on the TDSB educational colossus. In fact. the TDSB remains  “too big” and “too unwieldy” and could easily become just as dysfunctional again.  

Is Toronto’s Super-Board the finest example of a school district that is too big and too distant from the public to be accountable and responsive?  Is it possible to steer the TDSB in a new direction, counter to the dominant professional culture?  Should the TDSB be broken-up into smaller, more governable administrative units? What’s the likelihood that the TDSB bureaucracy would ever accept more decentralized governance, including school-level governance and budgeting, more responsive to local communities?  Most importantly, should these questions be confronted before proceeding to appoint another CEO with a skill set best suited to leading a corporate managerial school system? 

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