The top administrators of the Durham District School Board created a culture of harassment that caused fear and dysfunction in the workplace, according to an independent investigation that has divided trustees.
Education director Lisa Millar and former associate director David Visser formed a “duopoly of power” that was “troubling and intimidating” for members of the senior leadership team, according to a summary of the investigator’s findings obtained by The Globe and Mail. The two contravened Ontario’s laws governing workplace harassment as well as the board’s policies, says the summary of lawyer John McNair’s report.
“The Respondents made repeated abusive, derogatory remarks to senior staff about their current and former workplace colleagues,” the summary says, and “adopted a vindictive dislike towards certain superintendents.”
The elected trustees have not publicly disclosed the findings. Senior staff say the board has not addressed their governance concerns.
Trustees of Ontario’s eighth-largest school board hired Mr. McNair to investigate a formal complaint lodged by five senior administrators last May, according to interviews with current and former senior staffers and internal documents. The Globe has not named the staffers because they are not authorized to comment publicly and they fear there may be professional consequences for speaking out.
Trustees received Mr. McNair’s nearly 200-page report in September and have acknowledged to the complainants that the investigator’s findings corroborate their allegations, documents show.
Michael Barrett, chair of the board of trustees at the time, wrote to the complainants on Oct. 17, commending them for their courage in coming forward and promising “corrective action” to “change the workplace culture, eliminate workplace harassment and detoxify the working environment.” Mr. Barrett declined to comment.
Chris Braney, a long-time school trustee who replaced Mr. Barrett as chair in December, did not respond to questions from The Globe. The Durham board issued a statement, saying, without elaborating, that, “It is addressing issues arising out of the investigation with a view to upholding its commitment to a respectful work environment that is grounded in dignity for all.”
The board is restricted in its ability to comment, the statement says, because “the nature of the issues did not directly impact the education and well-being of our students.”
At a closed-door meeting in September, the 11 trustees narrowly voted in favour of having Ms. Millar remain in her job, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting. She was appointed director of education in May, 2016, for a five-year term.
Ms. Millar’s associate left his job shortly after. In an internal memo to senior staff dated Oct. 22, the board said Mr. Visser was retiring as of Oct. 31. “We ask that you join us in wishing David well in his next steps of his journey,” the memo says.
The next day, Ms. Millar wrote to the complainants saying she is “truly sorry” for her actions. “I want you to know that I take full responsibility for my part in doing anything other than contributing to a healthy, inclusive and well-functioning senior team.”
Ms. Millar did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Visser declined to comment.
Three of the complainants wrote to the board of trustees in December, calling on them to remove Ms. Millar. “It feels like your inaction condones the behaviours of the Director, minimizes the oppressive experiences of staff, disregards any value of a harassment free workplace, and shuns your responsibilities to hold your sole employee accountable,” the letter says.
Ms. Millar is now on medical leave with pneumonia, the board said in a news release Jan. 28. Norah Marsh, who joined the board as associate director in November, has been named acting director of education.
According to the senior staffers and the documents, Ms. Millar and Mr. Visser were the subjects of repeated complaints that they publicly belittled administrative staff in front of their colleagues at meetings, told staffers they were not worthy of executive membership and that the trustees had little faith in some of them.
Many members of the senior leadership team feared the consequences of attracting Ms. Millar’s and Mr. Visser’s disapproval by “questioning their decisions or being seen to challenge their authority,” says the summary of Mr. McNair’s report. “The workplace culture at DDSB was fearful and demoralizing for senior administrators.”
Durham is not the only school board in Ontario that has confronted governance problems. A government-appointed consultant’s report outlined a litany of problems at the Toronto District School Board in 2015, including fears among many employees that their e-mails and telephone calls were monitored.
The York Region District Board dismissed its director of education in 2017, after a report by two provincially appointed investigators criticized him for asking some senior staff to “spy” on their colleagues.
And in November, Ontario’s Education Minister ordered a review of the Peel District School Board amid allegations of targeted racism against students.