Peel School Board’s bold “new” step

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday February 06 2013 in Opinion
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One of the stories that emerged in the run-up to the Liberal leadership convention at the end of January was a report commissioned by the Peel District School Board (PDSB). The report was featured on the front page of the Toronto Star, for which I give them credit. It is not often that stories like this get that kind of attention.


I mention the leadership convention, not because they are connected, but because the Peel Board’s story may have been drowned out by what was deemed the bigger story.


The PDSB report, “Hiring and Promotion at the Peel District School Board”, prepared by Turner Consulting Group, outlined a review of the current hiring and promotional practices. More importantly, it provides a detailed plan of action to be taken by the Board to overhaul those practices. This is to ensure that the best people get hired and promoted based on their qualifications and abilities, not whom they know nor their ability to “schmooze”. What a concept.


In a nutshell, the Turner report found, from surveys and focus groups it conducted and from the review of Board policies and practices, that the hiring and promotion process that exists, is not consistent across the Board. Reference is made in the report to the practice of “leadership dinners” being discontinued.


Apparently, the leadership dinners were informal gatherings of potential candidates where an assessment of (what I am calling) “their non-academic fitness” was conducted. In other words, are they likeable or not.


In addition to these informal gatherings, the report found that a principal could make hiring decisions on his or her own. There were no standard interview questions, scoring or satisfactory paper trails that would indicate a bias-free assessment of candidates.


“These are the kinds of practices that a truly bias-free hiring would have to ensure that the best person for the job is hired,” noted Tana Turner, the president of the Turner Group. “And, it should be pointed out, that there are many large organizations in the public and private sectors that need to incorporate these steps.”


That gives me an opportunity to present an observation that many organizations have hired equity advisors or persons who fit within the designated categories – Aboriginal peoples, racial minorities, people with disabilities and women – to senior positions primarily to ward off criticisms of inequity but which do not provide the necessary supports to implement the necessary changes to ensure success.


This is where the Peel Board is a remarkable breath of fresh, hopeful air. By going public with the review and the proposed action plan, Director of Education Tony Pontes has made himself accountable to the public.


“This action plan is ambitious, and the journey may be challenging, but this work is absolutely necessary and will be done,” he is quoted as saying in the Board’s news release. “I stand behind the plan, with a commitment to our staff and community that we will do more to ensure a diverse workforce at all levels of the organization that is reflective of our community.”


There will no doubt be resistance. There are people who are ensconced in the belief that the system is not broken. It is the kind of position that former premier Mike Harris latched on to when he repealed the Employment Equity Act on coming to power in Ontario in 1995.


I do have a concern about this report, going forward, and it ties into the accountability aspect. As the report notes, the Board “has not conducted a Diversity Census and, therefore, does not have data on the representation of these groups within its workforce”. In other words – and this applies particularly at the senior levels – what is the current representation of the designated groups at these levels? How will we know that changes are indeed taking place?


One of the fears that individuals at the top may have is that their jobs may be in jeopardy if they self-identify and they are not a member of the designated groups. This is where a carefully crafted education program will come into effect to ensure that these measures are for hiring and promotions.


One of the remarkable points about this review that is worth mentioning is that men are placed (almost) in a designated category. The reason is that there has been a considerable decline in males entering the teaching profession.


“A large proportion of male teachers are over the age of 50 and men make up an increasingly smaller proportion of new teachers,” the report notes.


The PDSB is the second-largest school board in Canada. It services a community that has seen considerable changes in its population, fuelled by immigration and affordable housing that may be inaccessible within the City of Toronto, its larger neighbour. This review – and its potential outcome – is encouraging if only to demonstrate that there are some progressive thinkers in positions of power who are willing to try to make a difference.


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