York Region District School Board spending questioned
School board’s ‘globe-trotting’ riles parent
By Kim Zarzour, Metroland
York Region public school board is on a “reckless spending spree”, according to a Markham parent who has uncovered more than $130,000 spent in the last two years to pay for trustee and staff trips to Finland, New Zealand and London, England.
Todd Silverman, who has three children in York Region schools, is asking the province to clamp down on the board’s globe-trotting and other activities.
“I find it ironic that the Premier has been ... asking teachers to hold the line on spending, while the boards they work for spend like drunk sailors,” he said.
Mr. Silverman said he became concerned when he heard about trustees’ repeated trips to Finland and learned his child’s vice principal had also travelled to that country, while his school council struggled to raise $400 for a laptop for the school’s autism class.
He filed several Freedom of Information requests and reported the results, along with other expenditures, to the province’s education minister Laurel Broten.
“I question ... why a school board feels it necessary to consult with education institutions in Europe, instead of finding made-in-Canada solutions to educational concerns?” he wrote in a letter to the minister. “If the (board) cannot educate children with the means available here in Canada, then the province should assume control of the board and set things straight.”
In his request for information about trips outside North America, which cost him $420, Finland came up most often. In May 2010, 16 staff traveled there, four staff and former chairperson Diane Giangrande made the trek the following October, another 20 staff and trustees DeBartolo and Van-Beek went in May 2011 and another trip is scheduled this spring.
The upcoming May trip is expected to cost $35,000, while the three previous trips cost taxpayers more than $81,000. Trustees aren’t disputing the figures, but say the trips provide valuable information.
“This is coming out of my kid’s education,” Mr. Silverman said. “They’re taking money out of front-line education for someone’s dreams of creating Finland in Canada.”
The York board is not alone in an apparent “Finnish fixation”. Finland’s school system has garnered worldwide attention and visits in recent years because its students consistently score at the top of international comparisons.
In an article published last fall for NBC news, Kari Louhivuori, principal of Kirkkojärvi School in Espoo, Finland, credited several factors, including short school days, lots of playtime, little homework, long holidays and no testing or competition between schools.
Teachers must hold a master’s degree in education. Every student gets a free warm meal every day. Compulsory schooling does not start until the age of seven. Differences between schools are small and students attend nearest their home.
But some question if it is logical for a diverse board such as York Region’s to take its cues from a homogeneous small country.
“York Region is neither a province nor a country and therefore comparing to countrywide systems, such as Finland, is a bit of a stretch,” said Thornhill mom Gila Martow, who ran, unsuccessfully, for a recently vacated trustee position on the board.
Vaughan Trustee Joel Hertz also questioned the value of the trips.
“In these austere times, I question the expenditure of large sums of money to Finland, as an example, where we have already sent many staff and trustees,” Mr. Hertz said. “I am not sure we can apply the Finnish model to York Region, but I am no education expert.”
Mr. Silverman said the recent draft policy banning specialized elementary schools is an example of how the Finnish system is influencing York’s, and he disagrees with the approach.
“Our cultures are completely different. Why they think they can emulate them is completely beyond me.”
But former chairperson Diane Giangrande, who, along with the board’s director, met with Finland’s minister of education in 2010, said the board is not trying to copy Finland, but “digesting what’s there, taking the pieces and seeing how they can work for York Region”.
“Finland is one of the areas in the world that has shown incredible leadership,” and that country’s ability to ensure the well-being of all students meshes with the board’s multi-year focus on student well-being, the Richmond Hill trustee said.
At the same time, she said, York is sharing with Finland how it deals with diversity, something Finland is just beginning to encounter.
Richmond Hill trustee Carol Chan is planning a Finland trip in May. “I thought, most of the senior trustees have been there ... we have to be open-minded, to absorb and go home and improve... I treasure this learning experience.”
The board has been developing a partnership with Finland for many years, board chairperson Anna DeBartolo said. She expects the board will continue the trips as long as the budget allows it. “We have a lot to learn about what’s happening beyond our borders...We are raising global citizens here and we need to be aware of what’s happening.”
“We are learning from the top players in the world,” Ms Giangrande said. “This isn’t hanging out. This is serious, making sure we’re doing everything we can to support our students.”
A trip by 21 board staff to England in July enhanced the board’s literacy focus, she said, adding she and Georgina trustee Nancy Elgie learned about restorative practice for student discipline when they visited New Zealand in November.
Face-to-face meetings are important because otherwise, “you won’t see the same things as when you watch the students and see how staff operate,” Ms Giangrande said.
Trustees are allotted $3,184 a year for professional development. They are allowed to borrow from future budgets, she said, provided it is approved by the board.
Records show trips to Finland in May and New Zealand in November required this borrowing.
York Region Catholic school board spokesperson May Moore said it is not that board’s practice to organize large professional development group trips outside of the country.
Meanwhile, Thornhill trustee Susan Geller has not made any overseas trips and she questioned the number of trips and number of people travelling. “Why are 15 going? Why not two and they share their knowledge with people?
“I’ve gone to conferences and generally you get two hours good learning and a lot of wastage.”
Progressive Conservative finance critic Peter Shurman shared those sentiments.
“It does not make any sense. If they wanted to send six people there, I’d understand, if there were some benefits. But I do not know how the benefit would be magnified with 43 people, three times.
“I know how hard parents have to work to make money for schools ... It’s patently ridiculous and I expect more from our public organizations.”
But Ms Giangrande said multiple trips, with a variety of people, are necessary for the board to move forward in a united front.
When the travelers return, there are staff reports to share and discussions about what was learned, she said.
“When we’re talking about board plans, it’s important to understand why those are our priorities.”
The board’s annual Quest conferences include people from around the world, she said.
“Education today is not something that’s attached to one small portion of the globe.”
In his letter to the education minister, Mr. Silverman also raised concerns about trustees being paid to stay overnight in hotels while attending conferences in Toronto, such as Ms Giangrande’s stay at the Royal York hotel for $400.
“I live in York and travel to downtown Toronto every day. I think if I can do it, my trustees can do the same.”
That hotel stay was part of a conference held by the premier, inviting the director, chair and a team from each board, Ms Giangrande said.
“They wanted a lot of really great minds in the room ... It was an expectation by the ministry.
“Conferences are run on a very tight time frame. They start at 7:30 in the morning and keep going until late at night. When they bring people from all over the place, they need you there all the time.”
Mr. Silverman called the board’s recent use of Ipsos-Reid pollsters, at a cost of $40,000, for a survey on French education, a “blatant waste of funds” because it was addition to an in-house study already conducted by the board, he said.
“If the board wants to know what parents are thinking about education, then they should hold community meetings at schools.”
Ms Giangrande said the board was reviewing the sustainability of one of its major programs and wanted to give everyone the opportunity to have a voice.
“As a leading board we have a huge responsibility to help support other boards who may not have the same resources.
“It has become our responsibility to find and partner with leaders in education around the world. That’s why we’re seeing the kind of results we are ... We are constantly showing others how we do so well. We are also responsible to move forward, not just sit and stagnate.”
Ontario education ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler said the province established standards for trustee expenditure policies in 2009. Audit committees, including community representatives, are also being established to provide enhanced oversight while internal auditors provide advice and recommendations, he said. “We take concerns raised about financial accountability very seriously. We encourage people with concerns to contact their local school board as the board is accountable and has the authority to develop trustee expenditure policies.”