Donna Quan, the former executive director of the Toronto District School Board, was part owner of a private school while she was running Canada’s largest public board.
Ms. Quan, who presided over the TDSB and its nearly 600 schools between 2013 and 2015, had an ownership interest in The Pine Academy, a private school in Port Hope, Ont., that hoped to target foreign students for enrolment, court documents show.
Her tenure at the TDSB ended not long after Margaret Wilson, an investigator appointed by the provincial government to examine operational issues at the board, concluded Ms. Quan “ruled by fear,” unleashing reputational attacks on elected trustees who raised questions about the board’s dealings with a political fixer, Spiros Papathanasakis.
Mr. Papathanasakis was the focus of a 2018 Globe and Mail investigation, which chronicled his two-decade history of meddling and spreading governance chaos at Ontario public institutions, including the TDSB.
Court documents recently obtained by The Globe show Ms. Quan and Mr. Papathanasakis were part owners, along with others, of The Pine Academy – a now shuttered international school that was launched after Mr. Papathanasakis accompanied Ms. Quan on an official TDSB student recruitment trip to China in 2011. She was deputy director of the board at the time.
It’s not clear what Ms. Quan disclosed about her stake in the school. TDSB employees must report, in writing, a financial interest that “might present a conflict of interest in connection with their duties as board employees,” according to the board’s policies.
Ms. Quan did not respond to requests to comment for this story. TDSB spokesman Ryan Bird said the board could not locate a written declaration of Ms. Quan’s interest in the school, nor is it clear whether she verbally disclosed it. “Given the nearly eight years that have elapsed since her time at the TDSB, anyone that would have been in a position to receive this information – written or otherwise - is no longer with the board,” he said.
The TDSB competes with the private school sector in some respects, including recruiting foreign students, which is a revenue stream for the cash-strapped public board. The tuition for international students at a TDSB school in the current academic year is $16,000. The latest published numbers show 2,108 students from outside Canada were enrolled in its elementary and secondary schools in the 2019-20 academic year. Just under half were from China.
Mr. Papathanasakis had no role at the school board at the time of the trip to China, and his involvement alarmed a number of officials at the TDSB, who shared their concerns with The Globe for a 2014 story. The only explanation Ms. Quan provided at that time as to why he joined the delegation was a one-sentence, written statement: “Spiros Papathanasakis did not attend as part of the TDSB delegation and did not serve the TDSB in any capacity.”
About two months after the group returned from China, Mr. Papathanasakis created a company, The Pine Academy Inc., and on May 30, 2011, the Pine Academy purchased an old school house from the public school board in Port Hope, a small town about 100 kilometres east of Toronto. The Pine Academy hired a principal with a history of educating Chinese students and promoted itself as an international preparatory school that could support students seeking to pass standardized tests for English proficiency. It closed in 2014.
Because the Pine Academy was a private company, little was publicly known about the ownership of the school. Government records listed Mr. Papathanasakis as an officer of the company, and a news article in a Port Hope newspaper identified Monique Lisi, Mr. Papathanasakis’s long-time business partner, as a director.
But the school ran into difficulty paying creditors. One of its lenders sued Mr. Papathanasakis and Ms. Lisi in 2016, and filed documents in court that pulled back the curtain on the school’s ownership. A 2012 internal corporate document for The Pine Academy lists the shareholders as four family trusts, including the “Spiros Papathanasakis Family Trust,” the “Monique Lisi Family Trust” and “The Donna and Gary Chu Family Trust.”
Chu is Ms. Quan’s married name – she uses her maiden name professionally. The fourth owner of the school, “The Wallace Quan Family Trust,” is controlled by Wally Quan, Ms. Quan’s brother.
The court records list the address for the “Donna and Gary Chu Family Trust” as a home in Markham, Ont. When two Globe reporters visited the home, they asked to speak to Ms. Quan. The man who answered the door said Ms. Quan had “finished work” for the TDSB. “She’s a private citizen.”
Ms. Quan did not respond to a subsequent detailed letter sent to the same address.
Three trustees who served on the board while Ms. Quan was executive director, Elizabeth Moyer, Howard Goodman and Mari Rutka, said it was news to them that Ms. Quan had an interest in a private school during her tenure.
“I’m totally floored. I had no idea,” Ms. Moyer said. “To me, it just crosses a line.”
Mr. Goodman said there was “fierce competition” in 2012 between Ontario public school boards and private schools to attract students from China.
“Millions of dollars in tuition fees were at stake,” he said. For Ms. Quan to have participated in a private school competing for these same students “seems to me to be a clear and serious conflict of interest.”
Mr. Papathanasakis did not respond to questions The Globe sent to him via two of his lawyers and Ms. Lisi. However, in written answers he provided for a story in 2014, he said no students from China ever enrolled at The Pine Academy before it closed.
Before Ms. Quan stepped down in November, 2015, Ms. Wilson told The Globe she believed Ms. Quan had targeted for “destructive” verbal attacks board officials who were raising questions about spending on certain programs. Some of those programs had connections to Mr. Papathanasakis.
One of the officials Ms. Wilson cited as an example was Mr. Goodman, who, as a trustee, had pressed Ms. Quan to explain why the board paid a $200,000 legal settlement to a food vendor with ties to Mr. Papathanasakis. The company, Neo City Café, had been turned away from bidding on a catering contract in 2009 because it missed the bid deadline. Mr. Papathanasakis attempted to intervene with the TDSB’s head of procurement on behalf of Neo City’s owners, but to no avail.
Neo City sued, and as the matter was set to go to trial, the TDSB agreed to settle. Mr. Goodman had questions about the merits of that decision and demanded that Ms. Quan allow him to speak to auditors at Ernst & Young who had reviewed that settlement as part of a forensic audit. She refused, which led to a heated exchange between the two of them in her office on Jan. 7, 2014.
Ten months after the argument, she went to the police and accused Mr. Goodman of forcibly confining her in her office during their disagreement. Toronto Police charged him with forcible confinement and criminal harassment three days later.
Mr. Goodman was released a few hours later. But he never got to question the Ernst & Young auditors when they met with the audit committee. The terms of his release barred him from being within 100 metres of school board headquarters.
Mr. Goodman had to wait seven months before the Crown dropped all charges against him. He did not seek re-election in 2014.
Ms. Rutka lost her seat that year. She said in an interview it is regrettable that more was not done to investigate individuals closely connected to the financial and staff issues raised by Ms. Wilson.
“Margaret Wilson’s report in early 2015 pointed to numerous areas of deep concern in the operations of the TDSB,” she said.