Toxic workplace good reason to fire school board

Report finds evidence of bullying at VSB

Vancouver school trustees were guilty of bullying and harassment of their staff as charged.

That is the essential conclusion found in an “executive summary” released on Friday of the external investigator’s report into allegations of a “toxic” workplace at the Vancouver School Board.

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But don’t expect many details. Even when the full report turns up in the next few days, it will be so heavily redacted (with names blacked out) we will still not know who specifically was being bullied and harassed and, more importantly, who the trustees  were who were delivering the abuse.

As since-fired school board chair Mike Lombardi noted: “with no specifics regarding allegations” the report “smears all nine trustees.”

The investigator found that the trigger for all the grief was the issue of school closures. There was certainly a lot of verbal pushing and shoving coming from the public and school trustees on that issue.

And while “some” trustees (we are not told who) deny the back-and-forth over school closures was disrespectful of staff, the investigator had this to say: “In addition to the ambient bullying, there was credible evidence that members of the senior management team were subject to direct bullying and personal harassment. There was evidence that staff competence and professional skills were undermined by this conduct.”

When I asked at Friday’s VSB news conference if there was a single staff complainant who brought their grievances forward, I was told by the board’s interim secretary-treasurer Guy Bonnefoy that there was not.

Instead, Bonnefoy pointed to the letter from Sherry Elwood, the president of the B.C. School Superintendents' Association, to the Ministry of Education last September (and immediately leaked to the media) making these allegations that prompted the external investigation into the school board and a parallel investigation by WorkSafe B.C.

It appeared to all be a part of an orchestrated move to destabilize the Vancouver School Board. Recall that days before Elwood’s letter was made public, VSB secretary-treasurer Russell Horswill booked off on an “indefinite” medical leave. Two days later, Superintendent Scott Robinson was off on medical leave. In the end, and in very short order, six senior staff were on leave. 

Before that evacuation, there was already a Ministry of Education-appointed "special advisor" and an audit firm looking at governance and finances of the VSB because of budgetary concerns.

Then, there was the pile on of correspondence prompted, it would appear, by the ministry. There was Elwood’s letter. There was a letter from the B.C. School Trustees Association grumbling obliquely about the VSB not balancing its budget. And there was a critical letter from the provincial association representing school board secretary treasurers.

By then, Minister of Education Mike Bernier had asked WorkSafe B.C. to investigate the allegation Elwood had raised. And the school board had ordered its own investigation.

The final shoe dropped in mid-October. Lombardi informed the minister on a Friday that the VSB would finally pass a balanced budget the following week, although it was several months after the legislated deadline.

Before that could happen, provincial orders in council and ministerial orders were drawn up to both fire the board and install a government trustee on the grounds that a balanced budget had yet been approved.

Now, from a political point of view, firing a board over its failure to pass a balanced budget is not a clear winner. There would be those who would support the majority of the board (four Vision and one Green trustee) saying the province was creating the problem by underfunding education.

Even though the special advisor and the government appointed auditor had a great deal to say about a failure of the board to deal with governance issues, that was still not something that would stir up the general public.

But we can all understand bullying, harassment and a toxic workplace. Those are not matters, described by the external investigator as a “narrative,” most folks would countenance.  “Ambient bullying,” in the investigator’s view, described a board that conducted itself in a way that was “uncivil, disrespectful and rude.”

That, combined with the way staff were apparently treated, makes failing to balance a budget pale by comparison and ample reason to show them all the door regardless of who did what to who.


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