Government takeover of EMSB was long time coming, says Marlene Jennings

The Quebec government's decision to place the English Montreal School Board under trusteeship was at least a decade overdue, says Marlene Jennings, the former Liberal MP who has been given the task of overseeing the troubled organization.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge stripped several powers from EMSB commissioners earlier this month after a 10-month probe found spending irregularities. But Jennings said it was the management problems highlighted in the report that caused her particular alarm.

"What really stood out was the fact that for years, if not decades, commissioners would literally go into and interfere with the day-to-day operations," Jennings told CBC Montreal's Daybreak on Monday.

This interference, said Jennings, hampered the ability of EMSB employees to function properly and made for an unhealthy work environment.

"Senior staff, and even regular staff, never knew if they were going to be able to do their jobs or if they were going to receive instructions from a commissioner," said Jennings.

She pointed out the government's report noted several instances in which EMSB staff said commissioners tried to influence who they were hiring.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

'This would be a fantastic school board'

Jennings will take on nearly all the powers and functions of the EMSB commissioners for the next six months, while coming up with a plan to restructure the board.

All this comes as the Quebec government is pushing ahead with Bill 40, which would abolish school boards and replace them with service centres. Under the bill, the centres serving English schools will still have some elected officials.

For her part, Jennings says she has not lost faith in school boards as an institution.

"I think the bad governance — the dysfunctional council of commissioners — has already eroded public trust in this particular school board, but not necessarily in all school boards," said Jennings.

Jennings is regarded as an outspoken advocate for English schools boards. In 2015, she joined anglophone community organizations in protesting a plan by the Liberal government to abolish school board elections.

"The sense that I get from the public, from parents, and the personnel, is that the school board as a concept is a good one. If there was good governance, this would be a fantastic school board," Jennings said. 

Jennings said students at EMSB schools score top marks among public schools in the province, and are competitive with students at top private schools.

"The people who are teaching our children — the principals in the schools and the staff at headquarters — have been trying to do their job despite the dysfunction of the council of commissioners."