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Toronto trustees call for province to probe school board

Toronto District School Board chair Mari Rutka has sent letters to the Premier and the Education Minister seeking help.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

The chair of Canada's largest school board is calling on Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's government to intervene with the board's highest ranking staffer, alleging that director of education Donna Quan has blocked trustees from probing controversial payments and partnerships.

Toronto District School Board chair Mari Rutka wrote letters to Ms. Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals this month seeking a meeting to discuss the matter, school board sources say. A group of trustees accuse Ms. Quan of refusing to provide them with her employment contract. The trustees also say she stonewalled them on several decisions by board staff revealed in The Globe and Mail, including a mysterious $200,000 payment and education partnerships in Asia.

Trustee Irene Atkinson has also joined the call for government intervention. In a letter to Ms. Wynne and Ms. Sandals last week, she asked for an "arm's length independent investigation."

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A spokesman for Ms. Sandals said the government plans to schedule a meeting before month end, capping several months of controversy over the school board and Ms. Quan's leadership.

Ms. Rutka, who lost her seat in the recent election, declined to comment or release copies of her letters. But six sources at the school board said the letters stemmed from two motions Ms. Rutka put forward at a private board meeting in late October that descended into chaos.

Ms. Rutka was among a handful of trustees seeking answers from Ms. Quan on several issues initially revealed by The Globe, including a $200,000 payment she authorized to a catering company that supplied no supporting documentation for the services it said it provided.

One of the motions also took direct aim at Ms. Rutka's predecessor, Chris Bolton, by seeking answers about two international partnerships in which he was the driving force: The TDSB's recently severed relationship with the Chinese government-controlled Confucius Institute and an accord with a private school in Vietnam. Questions had been raised about Mr. Bolton's involvement in the partnership with the Vietnam school and whether he negotiated a senior position there before suddenly resigning as chair of the TDSB in June. He did not take the job.

The sources say Ms. Quan has also refused to provide trustees with a copy of her employment contract, thwarting their efforts to review her performance. The contract, negotiated by Mr. Bolton, is no longer in the chair's office and cannot be located, the sources say.

When contacted about Ms. Quan's contract, trustee Cathy Dandy said: "She was refusing to provide the contract. We are her employer. We are entitled to see her contract."

Ms. Atkinson went further in her letter to Ms. Wynne and Ms. Sandals, saying the director should be required to report to a supervisor appointed by the Ministry of Education to make her accountable. "It is not just insubordination, it is outright defiance and abuse," Ms. Atkinson wrote.

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In the second motion, Ms. Rutka proposed that the board spend up to $100,000 hiring lawyers to advise trustees on Ms. Quan's contract and allegations outlined in The Globe.

Ms. Quan did not respond to an e-mail or a letter from The Globe on Monday seeking comment.

Mike Semansky, a spokesman for Ms. Sandals, said the government can do more to resolve matters than just supervision.

During the private meeting, trustees did not have an opportunity to discuss or debate the motions, the sources said. They said that as soon as Ms. Rutka began speaking, trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher told Ms. Quan to leave the room. The meeting could not continue without the director and descended into chaos, the sources said.

"All of a sudden, all hell broke loose," one trustee said. "It was just mayhem in there."

Ms. Cary-Meagher did not return a phone message or an e-mail from The Globe.

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According to two trustees, Ms. Atkinson and Stephnie Payne, both of whom did not seek re-election, Ms. Quan re-entered the boardroom a short time later, looked at trustee Howard Goodman and said, "I'm going to get you. I'm going to sue you."

Two weeks later, Mr. Goodman was charged with forcible confinement and criminal harassment relating to alleged incidents involving Ms. Quan. The veteran trustee, who also did not seek re-election, often clashed with Ms. Quan as he pushed for more transparency.

School board sources told The Globe that early in the year, Mr. Goodman allegedly blocked Ms. Quan from leaving a room at the board office. And in late February, Mr. Goodman confronted Ms. Quan over unpaid fees to a school board organization. He apologized for that incident, but said his behaviour did not go beyond passionate discourse common in political arenas.

Mark Sandler, a lawyer for Mr. Goodman, said he will vigorously defend himself against these allegations.

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About the Authors
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

National reporter

Greg has been a reporter with The Globe since 2005. He has probed a wide variety of topics, including police malfeasance, corruption and international corporate bribery. He was written extensively about the Airbus affair, offshore tax evasion and, most recently, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his criminal ties. More

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