All of Vancouver's school trustees agree that there was stress building for the district's superintendent and senior administrators as everyone struggled to cope with a budget shortfall, a provincially appointed special adviser auditing the school board, school-closing plans that had the community in an uproar, and disagreements about the processes for handling parts of that.
What the trustees do not agree on is whether they crossed the line as they debated those items with Vancouver School Board staff in the weeks leading up to the unprecedented move by four of the district's senior people to all go on medical leave within days of each other (in addition to two whose leaves were planned before the current disarray).
That was followed a few days later by a letter from the head of the B.C. School Superintendents Association to the Education Ministry, saying staff felt micro-managed, bullied and harassed, which has now turned into a WorkSafeBC investigation.
Vision Vancouver trustees – especially the team's most dogged advocate, Patti Bacchus – acknowledge that they questioned staff frequently during the past month on three particular issues in public and private meetings.
They asked repeatedly about whether senior staff had calculated population projections accurately, whether they had used the right method for determining the number of students surrounding each school and whether they had designed the best consultation process for the public this fall after the board voted Sept. 26 to proceed with consideration of closing 11 schools.
Ms. Bacchus said she told staff directly that their consultation plan would not work, because it originally did not allow for any large public meetings and it sidelined trustees.
She pushed for the consultation to include at least three large town hall meetings, with trustees present, saying she knew that parents in Vancouver would be outraged if there was nothing like that.
"That did create some tension and frustration for staff," she said.
As well, there was also dismay among some trustees when they were told by Superintendent Scott Robinson on Sept. 26, just before he went on leave, that he had turned over private e-mails and recordings of internal meetings to the special adviser appointed by the ministry, who was auditing the district's operations after the board refused to pass a balanced budget by the June 30 deadline.
Ms. Bacchus filed a complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner on Sept. 28, concerned about the fact that private information from parents and other members of the public had been given to an outside party. (That went in after administrators went on leave, but several days before the letter making allegations of bullying and harassment became public.)
In spite of all that, board chair Mike Lombardi, who meets with the superintendent at least twice a week, along with his vice-chair, Green Party trustee Janet Fraser, and Ms. Bacchus insist that the back-and-forth was frank but respectful and that they always let staff know they had their support.
The superintendent, Mr. Robinson, who went on medical leave the day after the board voted to move ahead with the closing process at the insistence of staff, "is an incredible guy at an incredibly difficult time," Ms. Bacchus said. "He had a rough go from the start," she said, with a provincial audit to face when he started his job two years ago and now a second one.
But Non-Partisan Association trustees say the conversations went beyond the normal line when it comes to politicians questioning staff.
Trustee Chris Richardson said he was startled at the way staff were challenged in public meetings.
"I thought it was bordering on behaviour that wasn't what I would expect in a forum for a public trustee," said Mr. Richardson, who was the board chair for one year at the beginning of this term. "I was certainly taken aback by the suggestion that staff had not properly consulted with the city. And it was totally a slap suggesting our staff were not carrying out [their jobs]."
But he said he can't decide himself if that fell within the trustees' legitimate right to direct employees – something that WorkSafeBC spells out, in its website information on bullying and harassment, as an activity that management has a right to do and that can't be classified as bullying.
However, NPA trustee Stacy Robertson said he witnessed behaviour that he believes clearly fell into the definition of bullying and harassment.
"I surely know what the conduct is about," Mr. Robertson said. A lawyer, he said he does not want to provide any specifics about which trustees and what behaviour he believes were problematic, because he wants the WorkSafeBC investigation that has been initiated into the allegations to be done without interference and public comments.
But that is only the beginning of the troubles emerging from the messy situation.
Mr. Robertson said he "absolutely" expects that there will be lawsuits arising from this unprecedented situation. "With a toxic environment, people may have claims for constructive dismissal."
As well, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has confirmed, in a letter to Ms. Bacchus, that it will be looking at whether the special adviser violated sections of the Privacy Act when he collected trustee e-mails and internal recordings.