Fact-checking and Rebutting SQE on Elected Trustees

In January 2019 ed•vocāte’s Howard Goodman debated Maddie Di Muccio of the Society for Quality Education on TVO’s Agenda with Steve Paikin.  The 20 minutes allowed left a number of things unsaid and unchallenged, a short-coming that is addressed below.  Public decisions need to be based on accurate information.  Left to stand, distortions and misrepresentations of reality inevitably lead to poor decisions and loss of public trust.

Here are a dozen statements made by that Ms. Di Muccio during the interview, followed by a commentary on the accuracy and implications of each.


  • “At the end of the day, these [elected officials] are all symbolic positions”This is an astounding and inaccurate statement.  Our elected representatives make significant decisions on our behalf, from passing laws, allocating resources, and setting policies.  Much of what they decide to do, or decide not to do, effects the quality of our society and economy for decades. Their work is anything but “symbolic”.   It seems that Ms Di Muccio would be comfortable in an “efficient” autocracy, and advocates for the abolition of not only elected Trustees, but also MPs, MPPs, and municipal Councillors.  Granted there are significant problems with first-past-the-post elections and control-by-leader political parties which concentrate power into a few hands, but the rules that generate these problems can be changed.  Despite this “symbolic position” statement, at other times in the interview she praises elections (quoting Churchill, wanting taxpayers to have a say in how their money is spent.)


  • “[Elected trustees:] Not experienced, not a lot of political savvy” – It is impossible to intelligently discuss such a bold and unsubstantiated claim.  It is likely that Ms. Di Muccio has met very few Trustees; if she had a broad personal knowledge of Trustees serving on boards across Ontario she would be embarrassed to insult them this way.  Many Trustees bring deep expertise to their role – in law and finance, in management and human resources, in education and health, in child welfare and community activism.  And many are quite skilled politically.  Given the limited scope of their powers and meagre resources, they manage to change Ministry policy in a surprisingly large number of areas (e.g.opposing rural transportation contract rules, promoting increased Indigenous culture content into curriculum, funding for school pools, establishing return-to-learn concussion protocols).  Clearly Ms. Di Muccio was unimpressed with her colleagues on the 9-member Council governing the town of Newmarket (a semi-rural Toronto ex-urb of fewer than 90,000 people with each Council member representing 10,000 people), and a couple of 12 elected Trustees of the 125,000-student York School Board (each one representing about 70,000 people including 10,000 students).  There are hundreds of capable dedicated citizens in Ontario elected by their peers to provide governance oversight under intense, and often unwarranted, critical public scrutiny.  To impugn the character and skill of more than 1000 people based on her personal opinion that a few people weren’t up to the job is unwarranted and frankly offensive.


  • “School boards with huge bloated administrations” “In the end they’ve just bloated them with so much bureaucracy” – Ontario school boards administration costs are roughly 3% of funding, much less than most public and public organizations.  This pays for:
    • the extensive on-line computer systems and payroll departments that are needed to serve more than 2,000,000 students and 250,000 employees.
    • essential supervision of the front-line educational and physical operations of more than 5,000 schools located in large cities, booming suburbs, and small rural communities.
    • staff to conduct community consultations and to address parental concerns with school operations, how children are being treated, and human rights complaints.
    • CEO salaries that are often 1/3 of those paid to Presidents of colleges with many fewer students and smaller budgets.
    • the 4 cents on every $100 that goes to the elected Trustees who help parents navigate complex rules set by the Ministry and Board staff, and whose governance oversight routinely saves many times this amount each year.


  • “School board Trustees just reading the agenda and (with a dismissive shrug) saying, yeah, ok” – Clearly Ms. Di Muccio hasn’t been to any of the many school board meetings where lively and lengthy debate occurs. However, if an organization is properly run and governed, the majority of recommendations made by management will be sound and will quite properly  be approved with little discussion at the board table.  Most questions of clarification will take place before the meeting.  If the Board routinely challenges and/or rejects management’s plans something is seriously wrong.  Discussion and debate should take place only when board members identify concerns with management’s proposals – to do otherwise would waste time and would rightly be labelled as unnecessary political grandstanding.


  • “In the past we had 1 school board per school” – Ms. Di Muccio seems to think that a system suited to isolated rural communities of 100+ years ago is a good idea now.  Her “single school” governance model assumes a predominantly agricultural community building and running its own school with their own money to teach children who would likely never venture more than 100 kilometers from the house (not hospital) in which they were born  No international travel.  No internet.  No people having a half dozen careers, possibly in multiple cities, or even multiple countries.  Like it or not, in our hyper-connected hyper-mobile society it is important that there be common curriculum between schools. We cannot afford the consequences of children in low-income communities having inferior education to those in affluent communities.


  • “Who better than those parents to have the mandate?” – Begs the question “Which parents?”  Ms. Di Muccio had the time to be in her child’s school every day for two years.  Most other parents, possibly with very different views and priorities than hers, would not be so lucky.  It is common for a school council to be dominated by a handful of parents who push their own agenda, often based on the need of the specific needs of their children.   Parents outside this leadership group often have trouble having their concerns addressed.  For example, who would get to decide the amount of resources devoted to support a child with learning difficulties?  The parent of the child would want a great deal.  The parents of the other children would want these resources used to provide enriched activities, and might even want the needy child to be pushed out of the school if the parent wasn’t a member of the leadership group.  These sorts of in-school fights can be unrestrained and turn the school community against each other and against the Principal and teachers.


  • “We shouldn’t have seniors going into these jobs because they really don’t understand the issues that young kids at school are facing” – This is just plain nonsense.  A grandparent can understand  a great deal but his/her grandchildren’s lives.  A retired Principal can understand more than an over-worked stressed-out parent who can’t devote 20 or 30 or more hours a week listening to other parents in other schools, researching and considering the wisdom of management’s recommendations, lobbying against ill-advised Ministry policies, and making connections with possible allies in other parts of the province.  A long-standing Trustee can provide invaluable institutional memory that leads to decisions that are good for schools and students.  Time matters.  Perspective matters.  Direct experience matters.  Many Trustees first stand for election when their children are young.  Most leave after a dozen years or less, but many serve longer.  Some spectacularly effective Trustees have been seniors.  It is the height of arrogance to dismiss seniors of skill, expertise, and commitment just because they are “old”.


  • “You’re covering 9 municipalities; who would do that for $20,000” – Ms. Di Muccio’s Newmarket-centric view is colouring her statement, but even so she misstates the facts.  There are only 9 municipalities in all of York Region; 9 of 12 Trustees represent parts of a single municipality, the other three represent parts of only 2 municipalities each. Her own Trustee, Linda Gilbert, represents all of Newmarket and no other area. The situation is similar elsewhere in Ontario.   In Upper Grand, 6 Trustees of 10 don’t cross municipal boundaries.  It is 4 of 11 in Waterloo; 6 of 12 in Thames Valley; 10 of 11 in Durham; 22 of 22 in Toronto.  York Trustees earn about $23,000 (not $20,000), those in Peel $28,000 (the highest in Ontario), Halton $16,000, Waterloo $15,000, and Avon-Maitland $9,000 (typical of most small boards).  Serving as Trustee may be a difficult and not very financially rewarding task, and although Ms. Di Muccio’s is unable to fathom it hundreds of capable honorable people across Ontario find it incredibly rewarding.


  • “You ask your average voter, taxpayer, and saying I have the right to decide what kids should be taught, I’m paying taxes… I don’t know if it would really work democratically (with air quotes) speaking.”– These comments were made in response to the suggestion that a possible way to improve Trustee accountability, knowledgeable voting, and reduce costs would be to restrict Trustee elections to parents of children in the board’s schools.  Suddenly Trustees go from “symbolic” do-nothings who only are allowed to follow Ministry instructions to power authorities who decide what children are taught.  Ms. Di Muccio then states clearly her unmoving position – one that “At the end of the day I have always believed that just having the parent councils” and then goes on to list as her reasons two problems that parent-only elections might reduce or eliminate:
    • “it’s very difficult to get people engaged” (parents are certainly engaged in things related to their children’s education and school)
    • “most people have no clue what a Trustee is” (most parents know everything that a Trustee does, but they do know that they can turn to their Trustee when they have a concern about the school, about a Board decision, or about a misguided Ministry policy”)