Toronto Catholic school trustees' fat perks blasted
The culture of entitlement and corruption seems alive and well in the Toronto Catholic School Board. No wonder teachers and the general public are cynical about those who make important decisions about our children’s education. Below I have taken the liberty of reproducing a story in today’s Star detailing this betrayal of the public trust. I have placed in bold certain parts of the article.
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
Provincial adviser Norbert Hartmann is blasting the culture of entitlement at the Toronto catholic school board.
May 08, 2008 04:30 AM
Kerry Gillespie and Kristin Rushowy
A culture of entitlement among Toronto Catholic trustees saw them hire relatives, double dip on restaurant bills and approve car allowances and health benefits, despite being told by board staff and lawyers such perks weren't allowed, says a scathing report.
Trustee expenses have ballooned since 2003 and are now among the highest in the province – $100,000 per elected trustee compared with $67,000 in the Toronto public board and just $27,000 in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic board – because of the extra benefits and services trustees gave themselves, says provincial adviser Norbert Hartmann in his report Enhancing Public Trust and Confidence, released yesterday.
"I have no tolerance and the government has no tolerance for public dollars being used in inappropriate ways," Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said. "Where there are inappropriate expenses, inappropriate reimbursements, public money that's being used for private benefit, all of those things have to change."
The report is expected to have ramifications province-wide, as some of the spending practices questioned are in place in other boards.
"I really believe the vast majority of trustees are spending the public dollars wisely, they're making good decisions, but absolutely we're going to look at the implications of this report for the rest of the province," said Wynne.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board's 12 elected trustees are paid $18,671 per year, but cost another $80,000 in other services and benefits, including an $18,000 discretionary fund, $8,600 car allowance, $3,800 in technology expenses such as cellphone, Internet and printers.
One trustee position is currently vacant, after Christine Nunziata was removed for missing too many meetings and amid allegations she misspent thousands of taxpayer dollars on vacations and clothing.
Oliver Carroll, former chair and now budget chief, said the Hartmann report "sums up exactly what went wrong" and agrees there is a culture of entitlement.
"Basically the board, and I'll include me in that, set up a process that left it up to individual trustees to sort out whatever they considered appropriate spending. The majority did the right thing, but three or four – a sizeable majority – effectively helped themselves.
"The board needs to issue an apology, a very public apology for all of this and then we need to be, collectively, so clean ... so there are no (expense) issues."
Chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller said she's "not pleased with what (the report) demonstrates in terms of our policies and practices" and that the board will follow the recommendations to restore public confidence.
When asked how trustees became among the biggest spenders in the province, she said "policies evolved over time. And I think for that very reason, perhaps people lost sight of the scope of the impact of the changes."
Hartmann was appointed to probe trustee spending from 2003 to 2007, and his 20 recommendations direct the board to:
End their medical, dental and life insurance coverage.
Adopt a code of conduct similar to the city of Toronto's prohibiting trustees from hiring relatives.
Revoke the $8,600 annual car allowance, which is not allowed, and only pay actual, out-of-pocket transportation expenses.
Force trustees to return all equipment – including computers, cellphones and office furniture – at the end of their term instead of keeping them as personal property.
Eliminate trustees' ability to transfer discretionary funds to community, school and charitable groups, which he said gives the appearance of a "political slush fund."
There were rules to prevent many of these abuses from occurring but they weren't enforced, Hartmann states. In every spending category, "there are trustees who make no claims, while others incur fairly significant expenditures."
"Most acknowledged that the emergence of a culture of entitlement and the politicization of the approval process, prevented the operation of normal control processes," Hartmann's report states.
"This allowed such inappropriate expenses as dry cleaning, shoe repairs, personal software, MTO license fees, mini-bar fees ...to be claimed and reimbursed."
Hartman said in his report that when staff tried to enforce the expense policies, "some trustees phoned clerks directly and `browbeat them into submission.'"
As one trustee quoted in the report put it: "If a trustee said it was an expense, it was an expense."
Annual hospitality expenses ranged from $15,000 to $27,000 per trustee.
The board has until June 30 to submit amended policies to the education ministry.
The government has retained the auditing firm Ernst & Young to work with trustees to settle "questionable reimbursements brought to light by the review," according to a letter Wynne sent to the board chair yesterday, which could mean trustees repaying inappropriate expenses.
This wouldn't be the first time a board trustee has had to give money back. LeBlanc-Miller had to repay $4,700 in taxi, TTC and parking expenses because she was also receiving the monthly car allowance. She said she didn't realize she was breaking the rules, and the board didn't notice her mistake.
Carroll said he and fellow Trustee John Del Grande have posted their expenses online since 2006, a move fellow trustees refused, although all will have to do so this month.
THE MONEY TRAIL
Abuses found in a probe of expenses for Toronto Catholic school trustees from 2003-2007:
• Trustees paid themselves rent for use of office space in their own homes.
• One trustee expensed $7,577 tuition for a masters of education degree.
• Trustees gave themselves an annual car allowance of $8,600.
• Since 2003, trustees have transferred $200,000 of taxpayer money from discretionary funds into school causes of their choice, creating the appearance of a "political slush fund."
• They approved a policy allowing them to keep BlackBerrys, computers, shredders, digital cameras and office furniture when they leave office.
• Research and consulting contracts were given to relatives of trustees, people living at the same address and to murky numbered companies.
• Annual hospitality expenses were $15,000 to $27,000. Documents rarely noted the purpose.
• One trustee got 10 duplicate payments in a year by submitting restaurant and credit card receipts separately.
• Approved expenses included multiple meals in one day and alcohol and mini-bar bills.
Trustee expenses as a cost per pupil at selected school boards for 2007-08:
$14.94 Toronto Catholic
$8.99 York Region Catholic
$6.04 Toronto public
$5.74 Ottawa-Carleton public
$5.42 Ottawa-Carleton Catholic
$3.66 York Region public
$4.02 Thames Valley public
$3.72 Peel public
$3.62 Dufferin-Peel Catholic
Source: Enhancing Public Trust and Confidence report