One is a pledge of allegiance to the taxpayer.
Another vows to put students first.
Two more are promises not to sell off schools and to beef up accountability.
Integrity pledges have become the hot new candidate calling card in the Toronto District School Board election – six pledges so far and counting. They seem like a bid to repair the battered reputation of Canada’s largest school board as it reels from scandals over alleged document tampering, trustee infighting, expenses, labour costs and staff relations.
“It’s a new wrinkle in municipal electioneering – a kind of electoral marketing strategy that arises when the school board is under a bit of a cloud . . . and incumbents and challengers try to avoid criticism by signalling that the status quo is not good enough,” said Myer Siemiatycki, professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University.
For those on the least-known rung of the ballot – school trustees — a pledge can serve as a surrogate political stripe, he said; something for a voter to grab onto.
“In the context of the controversy and skepticism about what’s going on at the school board – personal behaviour, spending habits, cancelling programs that were already endorsed — it’s an effort by a candidate to avoid criticism on those grounds by signalling: ‘This is what I stand for. If you share these ideas, vote for me.’”
Not all pledges have to do with trustees behaving badly. One recent pledge deals with curriculum, even though it is set by Queen’s Park, and calls for a return to a “focus on core subjects of math, reading and science . . . and an approach to education predicated on objective facts rather than . . . trendy theories,” from co-authors Richard Klagsbrun, a candidate in Ward 10 (Trinity-Spadina), and Jerako Biaje in Ward 5 (York Centre).
But the flurry of public pledges deal mostly with ethics and accountability. Trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher issued a pledge Thursday for all trustees to sign, that they will post their expenses online with receipts, something she and Trustee Shelley Laskin already do on their personal websites.
“We are working for the parents and children of this city,” said Cary-Meagher, “and they have every right to know how we spend their money.”
Toronto mom Krista Wylie, the Ward 7 parent representative for Runnymede public school, is part of a new “Fix Our Schools Campaign.” The group has written to the top three mayoral candidates asking them to commit to better relations with the board.
“We want candidates who want to work with the TDSB, and specifically if they are willing to consider sharing the costs of green spaces,” she said. “The fact is, the TDSB provides an awful lot of green space to kids in public schools, but outside of school hours that green space is used by the community at large. A strong mayor could bring education into the fold . . . and work with them on sharing the costs.”
But pledges are popping up all along the political spectrum.
From the left comes the so-called Students First pledge, a nine-point vow to post “detailed expenses” online, respect the ideas of other trustees and hire a board ombudsman, a promise launched by four candidates who are New Democrat supporters, although candidates of other stripes have signed.
On the right is the Toronto Taxpayers’ Coalition Pledge to increase accountability and improve financial analysis of repairs and maintenance at both the TDSB and the city’s Catholic board.
A more specific Forensic Audit Accountability Pledge written by outgoing trustee Howard Goodman demands the board’s audit committee gain access to the findings of an external audit by Ernst & Young and use those recommendations to beef up board accountability.
And there is a pledge launched by newcomers Robert Cerjanec (Ward 17, Don Valley East) and Jennifer Arp (Ward 8, Eglinton-Lawrence) to oppose the sale or severance of surplus properties – something Queen’s Park encourages – and instead promotes converting them into community hubs.
The TDSB will have at least five new faces among the 22 after the election due to retirements and at least one more if incumbent Ward 1 John Hastings loses to the power of the Ford family name in Etobicoke North, where Rob Ford (open Rob Ford’s policard)’s nephew Michael Ford is running for trustee. It’s unclear how his win might affect the political mix because Ford has not responded to requests to be interviewed.
But the open races without incumbents have drawn huge interest:
- Ward 4 (York West) with trustee Stephnie Payne retiring, eight candidates have stepped forward including Spiros Papathanasakis, the executive director of the Cabbagetown Youth Centre, and the teacher union-endorsed Matias de Dovitiis.
- Ward 7 (Parkdale-High Park) with veteran trustee Irene Atkinson retiring after some 40 years of public service, seven candidates are in the running, including self-described progressive Jeffrey Freeman, who supports updating old buildings, and mother Robin Pilkey, who has been chair of Atkinson’s Ward council. One heated issue is a proposed boundary change that would move some families from Garden Ave. Public School to Parkdale Public School, a move some families oppose.
- Ward 8 (Eglinton-Lawrence) Trustee Howard Goodman is not seeking re-election and five candidates have stepped into the race, including lawyer Aaron Grinhaus and Jennifer Arp, co-author the anti-severance pledge.
- Ward 9 (Davenport) incumbent Maria Rodrigues has stepped down and eight candidates have entered the race, including Marit Stiles, one of the co-authors of the Students First Pledge and a publicist for ACTRA, and Elizabeth Jackson, whose priorities include aboriginal issues and autism supports.
- Ward 10 (Trinity-Spadina) was vacated by former chair Chris Bolton and nine challengers have put their names forward, including Richard Klagsbrun, co-author of the anti-severance pledge, Ausma Malik, a former education policy worker for the Ontario NDP and co-author of the Students First Pledge and parent Colleen Kennedy, a publicist for children’s entertainment.
Of the incumbents, arguably the most controversial, is Ward 20 Trustee Sam Sotiropoulos (Scarborough-Agincourt), who won in a 2011 byelection. The self-employed IT specialist has been a polarizing force, who openly sends hostile tweets about TDSB policies and individual trustees. He drew fire from Toronto’s city council for opposing nudity in the Gay Pride parade and has alienated a union-based advocacy group that helped get him elected. The Elementary Teachers of Toronto have complained about his comments about transgendered people and one candidate has launched a complaint under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Sotiropoulos’ main challenger is Manna Wong, executive assistant to NDP MPP Peter Tabuns and a mother of four.
Ward 15 incumbent Cathy Dandy’s (Toronto-Danforth) most high-profile challenger is Jennifer Story, a co-author of the Students First pledge and former assistant to the late NDP leader Jack Layton.
It’s a case of déjà vu in Ward 19, where incumbent David Smith, who has had a low profile and faced questions about long-distance and telephone roaming charges on his TDSB phone, is being challenged by the trustee he ousted in 2010 – firefighter Scott Harrison, seen as a straight-shooting conservative.
Ward 18 incumbent Elizabeth Moyer, censured by her fellow trustees after an investigation found she harassed two senior staffers, faces a strong challenge by community activist Parthi Kandavel, a teacher who has a master’s degree in education.
Ward 17 incumbent Harout Manougian also faces a strong opponent in Robert Cerjanec, co-author of the anti-severance pledge.
There are also endorsements by the largely union-based Campaign for Education, which interviews candidates on their stand on its 10-point platform that includes restoring some local taxation powers, adding seamless before- and after-school programs to full-day kindergarten and supporting small schools, among other priorities.
It has released a slate of 15 candidates it says supported these values, although the group only interviews people who know enough to approach it for an endorsement.
“Our assumption is that if people are interested in public education, they’ll know who we are,” said Stephen Seaborn, spokesperson for the group that includes more than 20 human rights, labor, cultural and equity groups. It has earmarked $350 in support for each of the candidates it supported, except for Manna Wong, to whom it is giving $750.
Information on trustee candidates, listed by wards, across the province are provided by the Ontario Public School Boards Association.
Trustee incumbents are not seeking re-election in five Toronto school board wards.