Always on the lookout for new ways to get into trouble, last week I became the co-Chair of the Parents Council (what used to be called PTA in America) for this academic year at one of Toronto's largest high schools. Central Technical School is at the heart of Toronto's downtown Ward 10 and in addition to an outstanding football legacy, boasts the best high school fine arts and computer programs in the city.
Since we hadn't yet appointed a regular delegate to it, one of my first duties was to attend a meeting of what is known as the Ward 10 Council. The meeting has parent representatives from all of the schools in the Ward, community members and representatives from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) , a body of which I have been highly critical in the past for using the education system to indoctrinate children to particular (and frequently peculiar) social beliefs. The meeting was held in a sparse room at the Scadding Court Community Centre, which is on the northwestern edge of the notoriously crime-infested Alexandra Park community housing neighborhood. Among the thirty or so people in attendance was the ward's School Trustee, who is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Chris Bolton.
The Liberal Government's Bill 115 which, among other aspects, will freeze pay increases to teachers' salaries, was the subject of lengthy discussion. Bolton twice repeated the phrase "real or imagined" when discussing the government's concerns about the need for fiscal restraint that has led to the introduction of Bill 115. It's in no one's imagination that Ontario's credit rating was downgraded earlier this year, that we are facing huge deficits and there is need to make sure we don't spend more money than we take in. What, if any concern Mr. Bolton has for those governmental responsibilities went unaddressed at the meeting. But there were other priorities he did make clear.
The particular focus on Bill 115 that evening was the way that Teachers' Unions reactions to it will affect extracurricular school programs. Regardless of the varied opinions about the merits and wisdom of the concerned unions and the sometimes bizarre dictates of the TDSB, there was unanimity in recognizing that individual teachers are for the most part exemplary, dedicated individuals tasked with performing a difficult job and generally are very good at it.
However, some teachers are withdrawing their participation in extracurricular activities, hoping that parents will register enough displeasure that it will put negotiating pressure on the Provincial government. The result being that many children will lose out on a valuable part of their school experience as long as the dispute continues.
One parent representing an elementary school introduced the possibility of qualified parent volunteers taking on supervision of extracurricular activities until teachers resumed that task.His understanding was that Parents' Councils are able to take out insurance so that it was permissible and he wanted clarification on that from School Board Chair Bolton.
With what appeared to be great reluctance, Bolton conceded that as long as the school principle was on premises, such insurance could be acquired and parents could indeed facilitate on-site after-school programming. After 6 PM, the principle's presence was not required and anyone could get a permit to use school premises for activities.
What seemed to me of greater priority to Mr. Bolton was his stated concern that teachers and their unions would be offended that parents were undermining their efforts at putting pressure on the government.
Red flags went up as soon as I heard that remark. Speaking up, I felt the need to remind Mr. Bolton that we all recognized the fine work of most teachers. But insofar as any trade-offs in the labor dispute goes, it's the interests of the children that need to be his first priority. Mr. Bolton gave a response that acknowledged that. But a number of us remained unconvinced about his willingness to follow through.
Mr. Bolton is closely affiliated with local City Councilor Adam Vaughan, who is considered one of the leaders of the "left wing" of Toronto's City Council. Though unions are prohibited from making direct financial donations, they make significant contributions to campaigns of politicians they support, like Vaughan and Bolton, by strongly encouraging members to volunteering manpower.
Following the meeting I was approached by some of the parents there. One of them said to me about Bolton, "he obviously knew about it, but wasn't going to say a word about us being able to continue extracurricular activities unless someone had brought it up." Many came out of the meeting unsure of whose interests he was trying to protect.
The episode was a reminder that parents cannot simply trust to the faith that their School Trustees are acting in their interests rather than those of the unions on whose support they have become accustomed. I am not sure of Mr. Bolton's or each school trustee's priorities. Clearly it is incumbent on any parent who cares about their child's well-being that they let these elected representatives know that we will be watching to ensure they put our children ahead of their political concerns.