What’s really at stake in Nov. 2 school board election?

By Robert Frank

Since nominations closed, Sept. 28, incumbents seeking re-election have jumped out of the box railing against Quebec City about declining enrolment in English school boards.

They’ve picked a convenient scapegoat—English private schools—to attack.

Those are called straw-man arguments, designed to set up a opponent who isn’t actually running for office for attack, while diverting attention from newcomers to education politics.

The Suburban, which for years has dutifully attended and reported on most school board council meetings, offers this summary of the issues at hand:


Credit outgoing Sir Wilfred Laurier School Board (SWLSB) chair Nick Milas for candour.

“Yes, it really is all about the money,” he said last month at sister school board Lester B. Pearson’s (LBPSB) last council meeting before the election.

The largest English school boards each spend well over a quarter-billion dollars, with far less public scrutiny than most West Island municipalities.

Provincial intrusion

The law says that school board sets their own taxes but, in practise, Quebec City dictates how much they can collect, according to outgoing LBPSB chair Suanne Stein Day. That turns school boards’ tax-setting exercise into merely an exercise in arithmetic.

The province can get away with ignoring its own law, since so few people turned out to vote in the last two school board elections in 2003 and 2007.

The Education Ministry can get away with it because of the school boards’ appallingly weak democratic mandate. In 2007, two-thirds of LBPSB councilors were acclaimed to office because no one ran against them.

Administrative overhead

Stein Day’s opponent Chris Eustace appeared vindicated when, earlier this year, Treasury Board president Martin Coiteux lashed out against “lavish” spending by elected school commissioners.

Eustace has for years railed against such costs, suggesting that the money would be better used in classrooms. Coiteux has since cut the school commissioners’ total budget envelope by 20 per cent.

Ironically, since Quebec City has halved the number of school commissioners, that represents an sharp jump in the budget per commissioner. At LBPSB, which had 21 outgoing commissioners and, after Nov. 2, will only have 12, that represents an increase of 40% per individual commissioner on the new, smaller board.

Third-world cash

Another paradox is the school boards’ rush to sell vocational training to poor, third-world students from India, China and elsewhere, to help subsidize education for rich first-world kids here.

LBPSB said that it earned $1.6 million last year from the practise. That’s profit: the revenue is much higher.

LBPSB just inked another deal with SWLSB for a separate vocational training program in Laval. English Montreal School Board told The Suburban that it’s thinking about doing likewise, but it’s deeply miffed that LBPSB has set up its vocational school in an expensive high-rise on EMSB territory in the heart of downtown Montreal.

That’s an odd expense, given LBPSB’s underused school inventory. Stein Day told the teachers’ union president that several LBPSB high schools are currently operating at only 60% capacity.

Governance of these training ventures is another issue. LBPSB and SWLSB created a new legal entity to run theirs, together with a private Toronto company, Edu-Edge. Stein Day reassured that the auditors of both school boards will examine the new partnership’s accounts.

It remains unclear how much oversight Quebec City will have over the millions of dollars it is expected to garner.

Edu-Edge has also attracted unwanted publicity last year, over allegations that overly aggressive advertising by Edu-Edge’s recruiting subcontractors in India led students to believe that they were accepting a “pay-and-stay” permanent residence arrangement, and that French-language ability was not required to remain in Quebec. 

Environmental hazards

School boards have been reluctant to come clean with details on the presence of radon, volatile hydrocarbons and mold spores in its classrooms.

As reported in The Suburban, in January, LBPSB commissioners voted to fire whistleblower Lucie Vacca. The teacher complained and had spoken out publicly about water infiltration problems in the walls of Gordon Robertson Beauty Academy.

Quebec health authorities had issued a report recommending that the school board intervene immediately to “deal with mould remediation, to take samples and decontaminate.”


Few members of the public attend school board meetings and those who do and complain are often silenced. In November, Stein Day banned Eustace from speaking at public meetings and, in April, had police usher him and a taxpayer Cindy Mac Donald off LBPSB property. 

Conflict of interest

Unlike Quebec’s municipal commission, school board conflict of interest complaints are held in camera.

A recent decision by LBPSB’s outgoing ethics commissioner left one complainant wondering why he wasn’t even interviewed before a decision exonerating the school board’s chair.

Earlier this year, news reports probed the high fees being charged at public schools by home and school associations.

French instruction

English school boards crow that their students are graduating more bilingual than their counterparts at French school boards.

LBPSB candidate Angela Nolet has invited closer scrutiny of those numbers to get a better idea of what those numbers really mean. Last week, she called for greater accountability.

Schedules that run our lives

Parents are fed up with capricious school schedules.

At the same April 28 meeting where police were called to eject questioners, LBPSB commissioners held an emotionally charged debate over whether to make June 23 a school day.

Opponents argued that there would be no pedagogical value for high school students, who had already begun their exam break.

Stein Day had to tip the tie vote, deciding in favour using June 23 to make up for the school day lost to the Quebec election, rather than cancel a May pedagogical day.

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