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Vancouver school board was a toxic workplace, investigators confirm

School districts across British Columbia are scrambling to hire teachers and support staff with the $50-million the province announced in the wake of a landmark court ruling.


An independent investigation has confirmed Vancouver School Board employees were subject to a toxic work environment and that bullying and harassment took place at the board.

But the details of that behaviour, and who exactly was involved, remain unknown – the VSB, citing privacy concerns, on Friday released an executive summary of the investigation, not the full report.

The VSB will likely release a redacted version of the full report in response to Freedom of Information requests, said VSB interim secretary treasurer Guy Bonnefoy.

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"There are privacy concerns we need to [address] before we do that," said Mr. Bonnefoy, adding that the VSB will release as much of the report as is legally possible to disclose.

For now, the executive summary says the board failed to provide an "emotionally safe and respectful work environment" and that certain trustees let staff take the heat over contentious school closings.

"I find the allegations that certain trustees 'threw the staff under the bus' an apt description of the trustees' conduct," says the executive summary by lawyer Roslyn Goldner, who was hired by the VSB to look into the workplace allegations.

"I accept the evidence that certain Trustees' public attack of the work of the senior staff related to the school closure process undermined and publicly embarrassed and humiliated the Superintendent and the Senior Management Team."

Unlike in most school districts around the province, school trustees in Vancouver run on party lines. The nine-member board fired last October was made up of four Non-Partisan Association trustees, four from Vision and a sole Green Party trustee.

In a statement, the four former Vision trustees defended their track record of advocacy and said they did not participate in or witness workplace bullying or harassment.

Former Vision trustee Mike Lombardi decried the lack of detail in the summary.

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"What they have really done is smeared nine trustees without any details," Mr. Lombardi said. "I'm looking forward to seeing the report so we can defend and deal with it," he added.

Former NPA trustee Stacy Robertson, however, said he was not surprised by the findings outlined in the summary, saying they echoed concerns the NPA raised in October just before the board was dismissed.

"The NPA school trustees raised many of these same issues in our October 17 press release prior to being replaced by the minister," Mr. Robertson said.

The harassment allegations emerged after several members of VSB's senior management team, including Superintendent Scott Robinson, went on leave last September. All senior staff have now returned to work, the VSB says.

The findings outlined in the executive summary are unlikely to result in discipline because the trustees in question are already gone: B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier fired them last October, citing the board's failure to pass a balanced budget.

The board members had announced their intention to pass a balanced budget on the day they were fired, but they failed to do so by June 30, 2016, as required under provincial regulations. That refusal put trustees at risk of being fired and further strained a tense relationship between the VSB and the provincial government.

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On Friday, Dianne Turner, the government-appointed trustee who replaced the fired trustees, said she found the report distressing to read, especially given the VSB's efforts to prevent bullying in schools.

"Every day, we talk to our students about how bullying is unacceptable," she said. "We tell our students … that you have to stand up to bullying, that harassment of any type is simply unacceptable."

At a news conference, Mr. Bonnefoy said the investigation did not involve a complainant from the VSB but was launched after a letter to Mr. Bernier from Sherry Elwood, at the time president of the B.C. School Superintendents Association.

Under WorkSafeBC regulations, a complainant does not have to be formally identified to trigger an investigation, Mr. Bonnefoy said.

"There are times when people are being bullied and they won't be able to come forward," he said.

"When people are aware of bullying, or believe that there is bullying, people should come forward. And that's what happened in this situation."

That letter described a working environment that "creates a toxicity which fosters fear and lack of sense of safety."

Ms. Elwood was not available to comment.

The board also released WorkSafeBC records that said Ms. Goldner's investigation complied with WorkSafeBC requirements.

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