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gary mason

A Vancouver school board report estimates that an overall decline in its student body will continue for a couple of years and then slowly increase over the next 15 years.The Globe and Mail

That the Vancouver School Board has been the problem child of districts around the province for years now has been no secret.

The ideological war that has been waged by trustees operating under the Vision Vancouver banner against the provincial government has helped ensure board activities remain constantly enveloped in discord and controversy. And while that might seem like fun to VSB officials who have partisan axes to grind, the poor stiffs forced to serve those driving such a craven political agenda have long been rumoured to be suffering the effects of a toxic and dysfunctional working environment.

It would now appear that there could well be something to those claims.

Six senior managers at the board, including the superintendent, have gone on medical leave, with at least some claiming to have been bullied and harassed by trustees. Even by the VSB's defective and impaired standards, this is an extraordinarily disturbing development – one that deserves a thorough investigation. The matter has rightly been referred to WorkSafeBC, the authority governing workplace issues in the province.

We have learned in recent days that internal e-mails, supplied by at least some of the unhappy and apparently unwell managers, have been turned over to the adviser appointed by the provincial government to do a complete audit of the board's activities. This correspondence could well shed light on the allegations being made by staff members now sitting at home collecting their salaries because the thought of going to work makes them sick and fearful.

When your entire group of senior managers is off on stress-induced sick leave, that is not a coincidence, it is a statement.

At least one board trustee, Patti Bacchus, is concerned internal e-mails have been turned over to auditor Peter Milburn. She cites reasons of third-party confidentiality, which is fair enough. The government will have to ensure that any reference to the e-mails in Mr. Milburn's report respects the province's privacy laws. Having said that, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine that Ms. Bacchus and some of her colleagues are worried about what those e-mails reveal, especially as they pertain to the bullying allegations being levelled against trustees.

For her part, Ms. Bacchus suggests that the medical leaves might be linked to stress being created by a provincial government that is demanding the VSB close underutilized and underpopulated schools. And perhaps that will turn out to be the case; maybe it is entirely the government's fault, as Ms. Bacchus suggests. However, that line of reasoning might be easier to entertain if Vision trustees didn't attribute every malady known to mankind to the Liberal government. And that the stressed-out managers have already pointed the finger at unnamed trustees.

The notion that trustees might meddle in the day-to-day operating decisions of school boards is not so far-fetched. It's been known to happen elsewhere.

Last year, a report into the troubled affairs of the Toronto District School Board identified a raft of problems, including micromanaging by trustees. Staffers complained they were bogged down trying to deliver on near-daily requests by meddling board members, instead of focusing on more important issues.

The current situation in Vancouver sounds far worse than the one in Toronto. The board here has openly defied the province by refusing to pass a balanced budget, and refusing to close schools that would help save the money necessary to stabilize its books. Frankly, the board should have been fired by now. The reason it hasn't likely has more to do with politics and the coming provincial election as anything.

The Liberals don't want to make martyrs out of the Vision trustees and hurt their electoral chances in key Vancouver ridings. But the allegations being levelled by the management team now refusing to work for the board could give the government no recourse.

If it is determined that bullying has taken place, that managers were being put under unacceptable pressures by certain trustees, then something needs to be done about it. Not only that, but the public needs to be aware of just who these trustees are. They could run for office again and voters would be none the wiser. But more importantly, they should never again be in a position of authority at the school board.

The deplorable chaos that has become a fact of life at the VSB has to end. It is taking a devastating toll on those who have to work in that anarchical setting. That is not just sad but horribly wrong.

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