If OPSBA could hand out Oscars, Jeff Sprang, director of Communications, would receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to public education in his role as a communications professional. His retirement from the Ontario Public School Boards' Association in June 2017 is an occasion to celebrate those contributions and honour a very fine human being.
Sprang joined OPSBA as its communications director in 1999 and over a period of 18 years solidified his remarkable reputation as the "go-to guy" for straight talk on public education. His knowledge is deep and far-reaching and is balanced with a keen sensitivity to what matters for students and parents. "He has been an insightful leader in strategic thinking on education issues, the intricacies of labour relations and government relationships. He has been our guru in communications and media relations," says OPSBA Executive Director Gail Anderson, a long-time colleague. "Throughout his career Jeff has built a deep trust and respect with media, school boards and government officials. His is a voice that is listened to. It comes from a place of principle, compassion and truth. These are rare qualities that infuse the advice he has unfailingly provided to OPSBA."
Building on a lifelong career in education, including many years at the former Toronto Board of Education as the board's media spokesperson, Sprang established relationships across the sector. He created a strong network of public school board communications professionals who share stories and strategies that successfully inspire public confidence in public education and strengthen connections across the province.
"Along with countless others in school boards across this province, it has been my pleasure and good fortune to benefit from Jeff's reasoned, insightful and real-world counsel in advancing the values of public education," says Greg Kidd, manager, corporate affairs, Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board. "With humility, humour and a genuine caring for the best interests of students, Jeff is, at all times, a true professional."
Sprang's instincts for setting public education in a global context are inspired. In 1990, when American researchers identified Ontario as having the best school system in the world, he worked with ABC television news to tell the provincial story, which was viewed by more than 20 million people. He identified readily with President Nelson Mandela's passion for the power of public education and worked with the media during the iconic South African leader's first two visits to Toronto in the early '90s to build student and school connections.
Award-winning journalist Jennifer Lewington met Jeff in 1992, shortly after she was named the Globe and Mail's first national education reporter. "My first encounter with Jeff set the tone for our long-time professional relationship that endures today. He was informed on the issues, sensitive to reporter deadlines and always resistant to the bafflegab that too often stands for communication in the education sector.
"Even at the most difficult and politically sensitive moments — labour strikes, government cuts and school closures — Jeff's sense of humour kept things on an even keel. He kept his eye on the main goal: to inform the public about education's central role in a civil society."
Retired Toronto DSB superintendent Anne Kerr first worked with Sprang in 1986 and credits him with helping her to learn about the role of media in building public confidence in public education. As a teacher, vice-principal at Danforth CTI and principal of Ursula Franklin Academy, she had many opportunities to work with him. "We knew we could trust Jeff. He was always there for us to support the good stories and through the challenging ones — always keeping our students' interests in the forefront. He understood the needs of the kids, the schools and the media. He modelled integrity, built trust and used his creativity to bring people together to tell the stories and build good will. We were lucky to work with Jeff."
He never forgot what it was like to be a teenager and to be fired up by issues of social justice. The "strength of student voice" was no cliché to him, and from his early days at OPSBA he was a champion for the role of student trustees, establishing a strong relationship with the Ontario Student Trustees' Association — l'Association des élèves conseillers et conseillères de l'Ontario (OSTA-AECO) and constantly searching out ways for OPSBA and OSTA-AECO to work together. Sprang's commitment to social justice also underlies his work as staff adviser to OPSBA's Indigenous Trustees' Council. He has valued the life and history lessons in working with the Council and has been heartened by today's increasing opportunities for truth and reconciliation, particularly in the education sector.
"Jeff has been invaluable in bringing crucial education topics to the forefront," says CityNews political reporter Cynthia Mulligan. "It sounds cliché, but he truly puts the students first — always. He has been a trusted resource through turbulent times in education, providing deep knowledge and understanding of complex issues."
Kristin Rushowy, a Toronto Star Queen's Park reporter and long-time education beat writer, agrees. "Jeff is an education treasure. He's the one you know will always call you back right away, even for the toughest stories, give you the straight goods and also throw in a laugh or two. I cannot tell you how well regarded he is in the media world. Ask any reporter — there's no one like him in the business."
A true Renaissance man, Sprang is also a professional artist (www.jeffsprang.com) and has used his talents to benefit children and youth, generously donating revenue from his art to many worthy causes for students here in Canada and abroad.
The man with the gentle voice, biting wit and tension-dispelling sense of humour is moving on. The public education sector will miss his unique set of gifts but will look out for what he will do next. It will be creative, maybe quirky, but always compassionate and all that is deeply human. The world will benefit. That's the kind of guy he is.
T.J. Goertz holds a degree in journalism from Carleton University and a graduate certificate in public relations and corporate communications from Centennial College. He has been with OPSBA since 2012, working in communications and policy.
Susan Cook is OPSBA's former communications and policy associate and a long-time colleague of Jeff Sprang.