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Vancouver Board of Education trustee Dianne Turner speaks to reporters at the Vancouver School Board offices on Thursday. Ms. Turner said one priority in her new job will be to create a respectful working environment. ‘Our staff here in Vancouver need our support,’ she said.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

At least one of the senior staff members who recently went on medical leave from their jobs with the Vancouver School Board is expected to return to work as soon as next week, says the new government-appointed trustee for the district.

And one of her top priorities in her new position will be to create a respectful working environment, Dianne Turner said in her first public remarks since being named the sole trustee to replace nine elected trustees, who were fired on Monday.

"Our staff here in Vancouver need our support," Ms. Turner told reporters Thursday at school district's offices. "They need caring and compassion – it's been a rough ride for a few of them."

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Ms. Turner said she has talked to each person who is on medical leave. While she could not discuss specific details, preliminary conversations indicate "most senior staff will be back by mid-November" and at least one person could return by next week.

At least four senior staff members of the Vancouver School Board have abruptly taken medical leave in recent weeks, in addition to two leaves that were planned in advance.

Those departures added to months of tensions over budgeting, potential school closings and allegations of workplace bullying that came to a breaking point this past Monday, when provincial Education Minister Mike Bernier fired all nine elected trustees.

The same day, the board had planned to pass a balanced budget – something it had refused to do in April, when the board in a split vote rejected the budget over concerns that the roughly $20-million cuts it contained were too deep. That move was largely symbolic, because school staff went ahead and implemented the budget, including the proposed cuts.

But because school boards are required by law to pass a balanced budget by June 30 of each year, the vote put the board at risk of being fired.

It also appeared to have put some pressure on the government.

"Inequities, perceived or real, in the way in which we are treated or see our colleagues treated breaks down the trust and consistency we require to perform our roles properly," said a letter to the provincial Ministry of Education dated Sept. 30 and signed by representatives from the B.C. School Trustees Association, the B.C. School Superintendents' Association and the B.C. Association of School Business Officials.

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Ms. Turner, a veteran teacher and administrator, said she wanted to see repair work on schools to make them safer in earthquakes get "a little acceleration."

"I would like to make sure that happens a little more quickly than it has been happening and I will be in touch with the Ministry of Education to make sure we can accelerate that program," Ms Turner said.

Parents, unions and the Opposition NDP have criticized the firings, defending the trustees as democratically elected representatives who championed causes including education funding and seismic upgrading of schools.

Ms. Turner is one of two government-appointed school trustees in the province.

The other, former Surrey School District superintendent Mike McKay, was appointed in June to run the North Okanagan-Shuswap school board. The North Okanagan-Shuswap board was fired after a special adviser's report that found the board was not functioning well and had lost the confidence of the community.

In July, Mr. Bernier appointed a different special adviser, Peter Milburn, to conduct a "forensic audit and full review" of the Vancouver School Board.

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The original deadline for Mr. Milburn's report was Sept. 30. That was extended earlier this month after several senior VSB staff members went on medical leave and the British Columbia School Superintendents Association wrote to the province to complain of "escalating behaviour of elected officials towards the [VSB] management team" and described a working environment that "creates a toxicity which fosters fear and a lack of sense of safety."

The report is now complete. But the province has delayed its release pending the outcome of a complaint about the report filed to the provincial Privacy Commissioner, as well as advice from the commissioner about any concerns that could arise from releasing the report.

"We will release the report as soon as we hear back from the [Privacy Commissioner] on both fronts," a ministry spokesman said in an e-mail.

WorkSafeBC is looking into the bullying allegations and has said it does not have a timeline for that investigation.

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