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Posts Tagged ‘Command and Control’

The abrupt departure of an Ontario Director of Education in early April 2021 was a shocker.  That newly-appointed chief superintendent, Robert Hofstatter, lasted only five weeks on the job and may well be the shortest tenure on record. He was also the first ‘top dog’ in the Ontario regional school board system to be hired after the July 2021 adoption of changes in the requirements to hold such executive positions in K-12 education. The firestorm of resistance at the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB) brought him down.

HostatterRobertYCDSB

Chief Financial Officer Carlene Jackson

What happened? On February 1, the YCDSB announced the appointment of a “new tech savvy director of education.” The incoming director, then the program head of computer science and engineering robotics at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, assumed office at the YCDSB Aurora Education Centre, effective March 1. While he was a member of the Ontario College of Teachers, what drew attention was his 20 years of experience in business, including time as vice-president, global information security operation systems at Scotiabank. On April 7, five weeks after arriving, educators and parents were shocked to receive a system-wide message that he was gone.

Ontario is confronting a massive turnover in its top education ranks and an identified shortage of top candidates prepared to take on the contemporary challenges of COVID-19 era district leadership. In June of 2021, fourteen of the 72 provincial boards were attempting to fill vacancies at the chief superintendent level.  Out of the sitting Directors of Education, fewer than half were women and only 2 or 3 were people of colour. Education Minister Stephen Leece supported a change in the regulations to “diversify the hiring pool” so that boards could seek candidates with wider skills. In the midst of a Pandemic, considerable expertise in technology might qualify as a mission-critical consideration.

Ontario’s teacher unions and their allies were dead-set against broadening the qualifications, fearing that it would open the door to the appointment of Directors without teaching qualifications and experience.  A leading public education funding lobby group, Toronto-based People for Education, sided with the critics, claiming that it would “make Ontario an anomaly across the country.”  An online petition opposing the new regulations attracted 30,000 signatures in its first week and claimed that it was a “substantial change” introduced with “no consultation with experts,” including CODE, the Council of Directors of Education, representing the 72 top ranking educators in the system.  

Teacher union advocates were adamant that Directors of Education should be certified teachers and former members of the unions. A tweet from ETFO president Sam Hammond made their position crystal clear: “The Toronto fire chief is a firefighter. The Police Chief is a police officer. The President & CEO of Sick Kids is a doctor, and the Director of Education should be a teacher.”  Some alleged that it was an attempt to privatize public education. Another rationale then surfaced: “Lack of education experience means that directors will not understand the anti-racist and anti-oppressive considerations necessary to align resources and supports across the organization to support marginalized populations.”

Lost in the furious reaction was the fact that the then interim Director of Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Carlene Jackson, was a Chief Financial Officer (TCDSB), trained as a chartered accountant with a master’s degree in business administration. Neighbouring Peel Region had also employed an interim Director who was not a teacher, with provincial approval, and barely a ripple of opposition. That suggests other factors must have come into play in the York Catholic District School Board situation.

Internal candidates are rarely happy when school boards go external and educators leapfrog over them into the CEO’s office. We now know that Hofstatter was toppled, in part, by an internal revolt within the top administrative ranks. The local media, led by the Aurora-Newmarket online papers, revealed what actually went on behind the scenes. Senior administration at the Board Office started retiring in protest, including the board’s Chief Financial Officer. Some thought they were more qualified for the job, others murmured quietly to teachers about “a white guy” being the first example of greater diversity.

Few outside the higher echelons of K-12 education know much about how the system of school leadership succession actually works. Supervisory papers are the entry passport and the system is explicitly hierarchical as you move up the ladder step-by-step from principal to assistant district superintendent to central office superintendent to the pinnacle, Director of Education. The term “superintendent” is a relic of the “command-and-control” school of leadership. Someone, anyone, from the outside faces a long odds in that kind of organizational culture.

Greater diversity in that applicant pool would certainly be welcome, especially by regular teachers, active parents, and local employers. Former TDSB trustee Howard Goodman was correct when he advocating opening it up to outstanding educators without SO papers, including Deputy Ministers of Education, Faculty of Education deans, and community college presidents. The reality is that CODE operates like a small, exclusive club of 72 individuals, all drawn from the same milieu with remarkably homogeneous views and experiences.

What can be done to meet the educational leadership challenge going forward?  What harm would it do to break the mold – and introduce new blood representing different life experiences?  What would diversity in the ranks of chief superintendents look like?  How can we ensure that what happened in York Region Catholic School Board does not send out a chill – and deter outstanding and capable future leaders from coming forward?

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