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Report details ‘tipping point’ between Vancouver School Board trustees, staff

Mike Bernier, the B.C. Education Minister, photographed on the grounds of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., July 30, 2015. Chad Hipolito For The Globe and Mail.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver School Board trustees bombarded staff with questions about the contentious issue of school closings and undercut their work in public, according to an investigation into bullying within the board.

Those problems reached a "tipping point" at a meeting last September, when Patti Bacchus, a trustee at the time with the Vision Vancouver party, put forward two motions that unfairly attacked board staff, says a report by a former lawyer who was brought in to investigate allegations of a toxic work environment.

"The motions called into question [staff] integrity and professionalism (due to their alleged failure to follow Board policy) and their competence (due to their flawed analysis of data related to project enrolment)," says a redacted copy of the report that was released Tuesday.

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"Staff felt attacked, humiliated and devalued. They claimed the persistent questioning of the Closure Report undermined the staff recommendations regarding school closures, making it difficult for them to move forward with any meaningful consultation process."

The Sept. 26 meeting followed months of months of fractious internal debate about school closings and came just weeks before the entire elected school board was fired in a budget standoff with the provincial government.

Within days of the meeting, the district's entire senior management team went on leave amid allegations of bullying and harassment.

Asked about the report, Ms. Bacchus defended her actions.

"I always treated staff with courtesy and respect," Ms. Bacchus said Tuesday in an e-mail. "I also listened to constituents and ensured their questions and concerns were addressed. We made the right decision by suspending the school closure process," she added.

Ms. Bacchus said her motions were simply in response to the provincial government's announcement, a few days before Sept. 26, that it would get rid of controversial capacity targets for schools.

The report sheds more light on turmoil within the board last fall.

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"The 'tipping point' was the Sept. 26, 2016, private and public meetings held at Charles Tupper Secondary School," writes lawyer Roslyn Goldner in the report. "The toxic environment is attributed to board dysfunction and the conduct of specific trustees."

The report expands on an executive summary released last week that concluded concerns of a toxic workplace were valid. The summary said that "in addition to ambient bullying, there was credible evidence that members of the senior management team staff were subject to direct bullying and personal harassment."

The summary, also written by Ms. Goldner, noted several systemic factors that contributed to the development of a toxic work environment, including the partisan composition of the board.

The board had been considering closing up to 11 schools. That process was put on hold last October.

The bullying allegations were contained in a letter from Sherry Elwood, at the time president of the B.C. School Superintendents Association, to the provincial government. In that letter, dated Sept. 28, Ms. Elwood described an "unstable and unpredictable" work environment at the board that created a "toxicity which fosters fear and lack of sense of safety for these lead educators."

Ms. Elwood's letter triggered investigations by WorkSafeBC and the school board.

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School trustees in Vancouver run on party slates. The former board consisted of four trustees from Vancouver's ruling Vision party, four from the opposition NPA and a sole Green Party trustee.

Relations between the school board and the provincial government had been strained for years over budget issues. Last June, board trustees refused to pass a balanced budget – as required under provincial regulations – over concerns that more than $20-million in cuts would hurt students and education outcomes.

The move was largely symbolic because staff had to implement the cuts anyway. In October, after the province scrapped district-wide capacity targets that had become a flashpoint in discussions around school closings, the board said it was ready to pass a balanced budget.

But Education Minister Mike Bernier fired the board on Oct. 17 and replaced the elected trustees with government-appointed trustee Dianne Turner.

This month, the VSB said all senior staff members are back at work and Ms. Turner said her focus is ensuring a safe, respectful working environment. She was appointed for a one-year term.

In her report, Ms. Goldner flagged concerns about former trustees returning to the board.

"Throughout this investigation I was struck by the scope and intensity of the fear of reprisal expressed by so many of the participants," Ms. Goldner wrote. "This fear is heightened by the prospect of ex-trustees returning as members of the board."

School board trustees are typically elected in municipal elections; B.C.'s next election is scheduled for Oct. 20, 2018.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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