The Toronto District School Board is the largest school board in Canada. And along with its great size and power comes an element of mystery. A recent internal audit of the discretionary expense claims of the Toronto District School Board’s trustees found that the way trustees file expense claims is both inconsistent and largely open to individual interpretation.
But wait a minute. Hang on. We have trustees? Well, yes—in fact, the TDSB has 22 of them. Trustees are elected to the school board every four years during municipal elections, and according to the TDSB, “…trustees meet as a Board on a regular basis and have organized standing committees that also meet on a regular basis.” 1 They attend conferences, voice concerns of students and parents within their ward, and eat up a hefty sum of taxpayers’ money.
According to the recent audit, TDSB trustees are given $27 000 in discretionary expenses in addition to their annual salary. Discretionary expenses are business-related costs that the trustee may bill to the TDSB. Incidentally, TDSB trustees have a significantly higher discretionary income than trustees in other school boards; for instance, trustees at the Peel District School Board are reimbursed for no more than $2 500 for professional learning and the attendance of conferences and conventions, and the York Region District School Board has fairly strict guidelines to help trustees separate illegitimate claims from reasonable ones.
Unlike the other school boards, the TDSB has not set out straightforward guidelines which indicate what types of claims are legitimate and which expenses are beyond the scope of reasonable coverage by the school board. This means that it is largely up to the trustees themselves to decipher which expenses should be billed to the TDSB and which costs should come straight from their pockets. With great power comes great responsibility, and herein lies the problem—our trustees aren’t being responsible with their discretionary expenses.
On average, TDSB trustees use $21 000 of the $27 000 they are allotted in discretionary expenses. However, the audit found that trustees have been using this money to pay for trivial expenses; in total, approximately 30% of the claimed expenses were illegitimate. Trustees have been using the allotted taxpayers’ money on parking tickets, taxi rides, and even gifts for others. One trustee attended a three-day long conference but claimed the expenses for an additional six-day stay. Two trustees chose to stay at the Toronto Sheraton Hotel for a conference that was being held in our own city and billed the school board for the hotel rooms and dinner. These are just a few examples of infractions being incurred by the TDSB trustees—people elected and trusted to faithfully and honestly serve Toronto schools, students, and families.
It is important to note here that the TDSB is already suffering from a budget deficit of $55 million, yet continues to spend money at a shockingly rapid rate. An audit found that TDSB senior staff had seen a raise in salaries of approximately $1.29 million since 2010. This additional spending, coupled with the budget deficit, means that not as much money is going toward the bottom line of the education system, students, and schools.
It is true that being the largest school board in Canada can prove to be tricky; however, is it unreasonable to expect at least a certain amount of accountability? It is thoroughly disappointing that the organization we all depend upon is so disorganized, unsystematic and unaccountable. Guidelines must be specified and criteria tightened for discretionary expenses of the TDSB trustees, so that the administrative problem can be mitigated.
Fortunately, the school board is taking steps to resolve this issue and TDSB trustees have finally agreed to post detailed expenses online. Nevertheless, it will be some time before we see any real numbers as the trustees scramble to throw together expense records and put their words into action. Trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher has been pushing the issue of accountability amongst TDSB trustees for quite some time now. She states that each trustee’s assistant has a binder filled with expenses and receipts, so it shouldn’t prove at all difficult for trustees to simply scan and post their expenses online. Unless, of course, the trustees prefer that their spending habits remain in the dark.
It is evidently time for the Toronto District School Board to get its act together. It needs to keep a tighter leash on the discretionary expenses system for trustees, because something isn’t working, and we’re paying for it.