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Mike Bernier is pictured at the B.C. Legislature in Victoria on July 30, 2015. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)
Mike Bernier is pictured at the B.C. Legislature in Victoria on July 30, 2015. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)

Vancouver school board chair in the dark on bullying allegations Add to ...

Those who are willing to talk publicly at the Vancouver school district say they have no idea which trustees are alleged to have been bullying and harassing staff, or what exactly they did, as the claims are being investigated.

The allegations that elected trustees mistreated district staff surfaced as the board prepared to consult parents about contentious school closings – a process that has now been suspended. The board is awaiting results of a forensic audit of its finances, an investigation into the bullying claims by WorkSafeBC, and the possibility that the entire elected body could be fired en masse.

School board chair Mike Lombardi said none of the senior administrators ever gave him a hint they had any complaints. He said he discovered something was amiss only when the district’s human resources director told him at various points last week that four top administrators had taken medical leave.

Over the weekend, a letter from the B.C. School Superintendents’ Association to the deputy education minister was leaked to various news media. That letter said, among other things, that “there is a pervasive concern that the ongoing disruption, criticism and in some cases hour-by-hour [direction] of their work, if not done exactly as requested by individual trustees or the board, may result in reprisals. This has created a workplace environment which has them concerned for the security of their positions.”

Mr. Lombardi, who has the most contact with senior management, said “there have been no specific allegations, no specific complaints” from those staff, either before they went on medical leave or since the letter was made public.

And Mr. Lombardi can’t begin to guess what exactly the complaints are about. He said trustees have been questioning staff about the best way to proceed, but that’s always been done in a respectful way.

“It’s the trustees’ job to ask questions.”

The district has brought in a third-party investigator, which is routine in such cases, although WorkSafe has indicated it also might send in its own investigator.

On Thursday, Education Minister Mike Bernier held another news conference to announce he won’t be firing the board just yet.

Instead, he said he has given his special adviser, Peter Milburn, another two weeks to complete his audit of the district’s operations. Mr. Milburn was appointed in July after the board narrowly voted not to pass a balanced budget, as required by law.

Mr. Bernier said his deputy minister has written to WorkSafe saying that Mr. Milburn might have information about the bullying and harassment charges that might be useful. But he said he won’t wait for the WorkSafe investigation before he makes any decisions about the board’s fate.

The Vancouver district has been in turmoil for months, since the board started a process in January to close as many as 13 schools. That was initiated because the district had a $25-million budget shortfall and it was being told that it needed to reduce the number of empty seats in the district to qualify for provincial funding to make schools earthquake-proof.

The issue of school closings has created tensions between some trustees and staff, with much back-and-forth over the criteria staff used to decide which schools to close.

The district’s secretary-treasurer went on medical leave Sept. 26, the day the board held a meeting where trustees voted to move ahead with public consultations on the potential closing of 11 schools.

The superintendent, Scott Robinson, went on medical leave the day after that meeting. That came as a surprise to Mr. Lombardi, who said he worked with Mr. Robinson after the meeting to draft a news release and talked to him about meeting the next day to debrief.

That same day, Sept. 27, three other administrators met with Mr. Lombardi and vice-chair Janet Fraser, a Green Party representative, to say they thought the school-closing process should be suspended since Mr. Robinson had gone on leave and because the public appeared to be unhappy with the lack of time given for consultations.

The two trustees said they would take that advice to the board. But, before they could, the three administrators from the meeting also went on medical leave. So did a fourth around the same time. Two of them had already had leaves planned for medical and family reasons.

By the end of the week, the board hired back its previous superintendent, Steve Cardwell, and previous secretary-treasurer, which settled things down, Mr. Lombardi said.

The board voted Monday to suspend the school-closing process.

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