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Let’s take over the school board

Three would-be trustees survey the education situation

NADIA BELLO

Toronto’s public school board is widely regarded as having progressive equity policies, but whether or not those policies leave the realm of good intentions to make a difference to the queer kids that need them hinges on a problem facing all students enrolled across the city: funding.

But what would happen if all 30 Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustees were openly gay? Would antihomophobia initiatives and other equity issues skyrocket to the top of the agenda? Would the city be able to boast that it’s home to one of the most progressive school systems on the continent?

Keeping the board’s current financial woes in mind, Xtra asked three queer candidates about the chances of a gay-friendly agenda registering on the board’s radar if they succeed in this November’s municipal election.

The current situation

Presently, the board is operating without a balanced budget. Facing a shortfall of $84 million in 2006/’07, the board is looking to cut costs and save money, which means major expansions of equity programs targeted at Toronto’s queer youth are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

There are currently three openly gay trustees, two of whom are running for reelection: Chris Bolton in Ward 10 Trinity-Spadina and board chair Sheila Ward in Ward 14 Toronto-Centre Rosedale. Rick Telfer, trustee in Ward 15 Toronto-Danforth, is bowing out. Aside from wanting more personal time, Telfer says he’s not running again because the current crop of trustees lacks the political will to take the province to task over the constant funding cuts that have affected everything from muffins to support staff.

“Looking back, when I was elected three years ago, the general assessment is still status quo,” says Telfer. “It’s like we’ve come full circle from a point of optimism and hope back to this point of spinning our wheels. I want to be the kind of trustee that is envisioning and performing changes. I don’t want to spend another three years fighting over funding. I’m an education advocate first and foremost. I think my time is better spent as a community activist.”

That said, Telfer says that some progress has been possible under the current system, pointing to a new program the board launched in September. The Model Schools For Inner Cities initiative targets three downtown schools with programs and services designed to alleviate problems caused by poverty and cultural alienation.

“Creating programs such as this is to our [budgetary] peril,” he adds. “We can innovate, but at an $85-million deficit cost.”

Meet the new candidates

There are three new queer faces contesting trustee races in wards across the city. Nadia Bello, a 27-year-old program co-coordinator with Planned Parenthood’s Teens Educating And Confronting Homophobia (TEACH), is running in Ward 22 Scarborough-East. Rolland Kacsoh, a 29-year-old hospital rep for a pharmaceutical company and volunteer at long-term care facility Cummer Lodge, is running in Ward 12 Willowdale. In Ward 8 Eglinton-Lawrence, Mark Riczu, a 26-year-old mathematician with the charity Math Jump, is on the ballot.

The three candidates share many of the same priorities when it comes to bringing the TDSB up to the standards of its much-lauded policies.

Priority 1: Restore equity staff

All of the candidates interviewed agree that an important step in ensuring Toronto schools are supporting queer students is the restoration of the support positions that existed before 1998, when Mike Harris’s Tory government changed the funding formula and took away local boards’ ability to levy taxes.

“It’s easier for people in the queer community to fall through the cracks when there’s no one there to listen,” says Kacsoh.

The reinstatement of these positions, which includes youth counsellors and community advisors, was one of the recommendations made by the Safe And Compassionate Schools Task Force when it told the board to drop its zero tolerance policies in 2004.

Kacsoh notes that not only have these positions not been restored since the taskforce published it recommendations, but equity services have since suffered further cuts such as a reduction in the number of educational assistants in 2004 and safety monitors in 2005.

Priority 2: Address systemic homophobia

“Trustees should really be taking an active hand in the equity policies by saying we expect a classroom free of bullying, free of violence,” says Bello. “That way superintendents, teachers and staff would have a clear expectation of work that needs to be done.”

Bello says mandatory, ongoing training for all teachers and education workers is necessary to combat systemic homophobia within schools, adding that if teachers or staff hold homophobic attitudes themselves they won’t be able to address queer issues among their students.

“Youth are youth no matter what. Adults determine whether space is inclusive or not and set the overall tone,” she says.

Bello says that in her work with TEACH she’s found adults to be more resistant to change compared with youth. She adds that too often homophobia in school is blamed on students.

As an example she poses a scenario in which a school principal announces students need special sensitivity training to stamp out homophobia. Bello says there is a negative assumption being made that it’s the students who need the training.

Priority 3: Scrap the funding formula

Riczu says that funding is his first priority. Ironically, Riczu says the province should recognize not all schools are equal. A school in Timmins has different problems than a school in Toronto, where the cost of living is high, the population is bigger and more immigrants are settling, he says. Ideally, trustees should push for the funding formula to be scrapped.

“We have to move away from a formulaic model,” he says. “The notion of a formula is inflexible. The ministry should have the boards submit requests for programs that are above and beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, and funding would be based more on a sensitive evaluation of circumstances rather than just plugging in a few numbers.”

Priority 4: Expand the Triangle Program

Billed as Canada’s only classroom for queer/trans youth, the Triangle Program is a chance for queer students who are having difficulty coping with daily life in a mainstream school environment to carry on with their studies. The program has existed for nine years and has received funding for its website and annual Pride week prom directly from Telfer’s trustee budget.

Telfer says expanding programs for queer youth such as the Triangle Program is important, but difficult under the current system because operating money is doled out on a per capita or per student basis and goes directly into financing the classroom, not the “hallway spaces” where after-school programs, gay/straight alliance clubs or equity programs flourish. So, if a school has low enrollment, the operating funds allocated may not even cover the salary for a vice-principal.

Kacsoh recalls his own youth when considering the Triangle Program’s potential. He was 18 before he met an openly gay person and says he’d like to see the program rolled out across the city.

“It would be great to take in more than a handful of students who are at their wits end,” he says. “In an ideal world, we’d run a number of these programs in areas throughout the city to make them more geographically accessible.”

He adds more visibility for the program in the way of advertising within mainstream schools would go a long way toward normalizing homosexuality and make more closeted or questioning students aware of its existence.

So what if every trustee was gay?

The three candidates agreed that more openly queer trustees would set a positive example for students, but probably wouldn’t put an end to the funding crisis or solve racial, social and economic disparities.

“I think queer people have really profound performative experiences in schools, be it positive or negative,” Riczu says. “It really makes school meaningful to queer people — I think that’s why you see many queer candidates running.”

Telfer is more skeptical. “Let’s say the entire board were gay and lesbian and card-carrying Liberals. If I were to put forward a motion tonight to add $5,000 to the Triangle Program budget, I’m sure Chris Bolton would support it, but would Sheila Ward support it? I’m not sure she would,” he says. “Sheila Ward is a proud, card-carrying Liberal and that is her allegiance first and foremost. On questions of funding, she very much toes the party line. It’s not a question of sexual orientation so much as it is a question of politics.”

Ward did not respond to interview requests for this story.