Andre Marin goes to school: Guest Commentary (The Toronto Sun)

Andre Marin goes to school: Guest Commentary (The Toronto Sun)

June 20, 2015

20 June, 2015

Forgive me for saying this on the first day of summer, but some of us are already getting ready for back-to-school season.

André Marin
The Toronto Sun
June 20, 2015

Forgive me for saying this on the first day of summer, but some of us are already getting ready for back-to-school season. That’s because on September 1, Ontarians will finally be able to complain to their ombudsman about school boards.

Do you have complaints about programs, treatment of students or trustee conduct? We will literally have operators standing by. This news — thanks to Bill 8, the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act — has been a long time coming.

The first ombudsman, Arthur Maloney, first pointed out 40 years ago that school boards should have the same ombudsman scrutiny as the rest of the government, since it spends so much money on them (now $23 billion). I’ve spent the past 10 years making that case, as my office received 1,243 complaints about school boards — even though people knew they were outside of our jurisdiction (unlike in four other provinces). Now we’ll spend the next 10 weeks letting everyone in the school sector know how to complain, how we work, and what to expect.

Call it Ombudsman 101.

There’s no doubt Ontarians have grown impatient with the dysfunctionality notorious in some school boards. Complaints to us have increased steadily over the years, and more than doubled since 2010. Parents, students, staff and even trustees have complained to us about everything from busing to bullying. Education Minister Liz Sandals stepped in after an external review of the Toronto District School Board found serious governance issues, such as trustees not understanding their role. She appointed an advisory panel led by former Toronto mayor and Ontario human rights commissioner Barbara Hall to untangle the mess. Its report is due any day now.

The ombudsman’s oversight of school boards will prove an effective recourse for those who feel they need a voice in tackling maladministration. It’s not as if boards have led the battle to hold their own system accountable. Many have floated the idea of creating their own ombudsmen, but none ever voted to do so until the Toronto Catholic District School Board last year.

Guess what? The new board recently scrapped the idea, on the theory that my office will do the work instead, under Bill 8.

Here’s the first lesson of Ombudsman 101: The Ombudsman is an office of last resort. Wherever possible, we will work with boards so they resolve complaints at the local level. To paraphrase that Shakespeare speech we all learned in school, I come to support local complaint mechanisms, not to replace them.

Yes, the ombudsman’s office is there for the “little guy,” but as an organization, we’re a relatively “little guy” ourselves: An office of 85 people with a budget just over $11 million annually, handling more than 25,000 complaints per year and already overseeing 500-plus bodies that make up the provincial government. Add to that 82 school boards — not to mention 444 municipalities and 21 universities in January — and it’s a lot to handle.

Our staff excel at cutting through red tape at the provincial level – resolving most complaints within a few days by getting through to the responsible officials at the source of the problem. We’ll do the same with school boards, referring cases back to them as warranted — because local problems are best dealt with at the local level. I am especially keen to see what broad, systemic issues there are in school boards that we can help fix, as we have been able to do with many provincial problems, from lottery security to newborn screening to the billing mess at Hydro One.

Bill 8 was inspired by the public’s demand for accountability. Ontarians will be best served if school boards and municipalities respond to that demand by supporting their own accountability offices, and universities bolster the ombudsmen that most already have. If they falter, my office will be there to help — as a last resort, and as a powerful investigator of issues that others are unable or unwilling to tackle.