Costly for taxpayers; School board keeps lawyer and ethics watchdog busy
December 15, 2009
It was a first glimpse of a school-board meeting for at least a few of the parents in the boardroom.
They were riled about a possible threat to enrolment at their children’s school, and they waited more than 90 minutes at the English Montreal School Board for a chance to be heard.
Public question period was item No. 7 on the agenda at the Nov. 25 meeting of the Council of Commissioners, the oversight arm of the school board.
But before the parents could ask their questions, they had to watch commissioners object to the minutes of the previous meeting and listen to some testy exchanges.
“They should discuss things that are affecting our children,” grumbled Elisa Fracassi, governing board chairperson at East Hill School.
“We’re here for our children, for our schools, and I think we should have priority over discussing salaries of commissioners and the chair and vice-chair, which is not important at all.”
It was another demonstration of the political infighting that has dogged the school board since its inception in 1998.
This particular meeting ended abruptly, with many commissioners walking out.
The tension that night presumably didn’t go unnoticed by the lawyer named by the Quebec government in February to help break the political logjam at the EMSB.
Tommaso Nanci’s original mandate was from February to the end of April, but has since been extended more than once, most recently beyond a Dec. 8 end date.
These latest clashes raise questions about how much progress has been made at the EMSB’s Council of Commissioners since he was appointed.
“I don’t see any tangible improvement,” said Ruth Rosenfield, head of the Montreal Teachers Association, whose members teach at the board.
“I would think if he had to make a report, that he would have to report lack of success,” Rosenfield said. “I don’t know what he could say has changed. I don’t see it.”
The board has one of the top graduation rates among school boards in Quebec, Rosenfield noted. But, she lamented, instead of being able to be proud of the board’s successes, employees are “cringing about what’s going to be in the newspaper.”
The council consists of 23 elected commissioners and two parent commissioners. Its role is to set policies and oversee operations at the publicly funded school board, which has a budget of $221 million for 2009-10. The board oversees 81 schools and various learning centres attended by more than 35,000 students across Montreal.
The political infighting has come at a cost to taxpayers. As of July, the government had spent $100,200 for Nanci’s services.
The board has also paid about $35,000 to its external ethics commissioner, a position school boards are required to have, since she was named in May 2007.
Madeleine Lemieux was hired on an as-needed basis, and the EMSB has kept her busy. She has had to deal with 15 complaints against board commissioners – most of them filed by other commissioners.
Complaints are confidential, with each commissioner contacting the ethics watchdog individually.
Bernie Praw, a former teacher and principal who has been a commissioner since 1998, said he is disheartened by the board’s dysfunction.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life – never,” Praw said. “It’s very frustrating and it’s very discouraging.”
Yet this fall, board chairperson Angela Mancini said there had been “some visible improvements in the way we interact with each other.”
A few commissioners also say they detect an improvement.
“I think things are getting better,” said one, Syd Wise.
“I don’t think from an ideological point of view there’s much that separates us. I think we’re all there for good, positive reasons,” Wise said.
“We have to make sure that we get along as a group. There is a degree of petty hassling, which has to be set aside.”
When some commissioners walked out of the Nov. 25 board meeting, it resulted in a loss of quorum, which meant that the meeting could not continue. The walkout was over a contentious resolution to denounce an opinion piece written by first-term commissioner Julien Feldman that was published in The Gazette, listing suggestions on improving how the council runs.
Feldman has pushed for greater openness at the board. He has also ruffled feathers on the council.
Commissioner Joseph Petraglia praised Feldman’s research efforts as “second to none,” but also said Feldman “tries our patience and certainly takes time away from council” on procedural issues and by challenging Mancini, the chairperson.
Asked about critiques related to his approach, Feldman responded: “I think I ask constructive questions. And I challenge the chair when it’s necessary.”
Political division has been a fixture at the EMSB over the years. This council’s first big rift opened after the 2007 school-board elections, when Mancini got the nod for the chairperson’s job. She landed the position with support from the allies of the previous chairperson, Dominic Spiridigliozzi, a move that angered some members of the loose coalition with which she had aligned herself during the election campaign against him.
Nanci is paid according to a set fee per contract. The two contracts the government provided to The Gazette, in response to an access-to-information request, showed an initial fee of $54,000 for February to the end of April, and a second fee of $46,200 for May to early July. More recent figures were not provided.
Nanci is in the process of completing his mandate, said Tamara Davis, a spokesperson for Education Minister Michelle Courchesne. A report for the minister is expected in the new year, but Davis would not say whether it will be made public.