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WorkSafeBC investigation says some Vancouver School Board trustees bullied staff

The WorkSafeBC report covers the tense months leading up to October 2016, when B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier fired the nine-member Vancouver School Board for not passing a balanced budget.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

A WorkSafeBC investigation concludes some trustees' behaviour toward Vancouver School Board employees amounted to bullying and harassment, citing the same public meeting that was identified as a "tipping point" in the VSB's own investigation.

That meeting on Sept. 26, 2016, was a marathon public session to discuss closing up to a dozen schools, most of them on the city's east side.

"VSB staff states this public board meeting was humiliating and intimidating," says the report, obtained through an information request.

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"In particular, these feelings were a result of the public nature of the inappropriate conduct and comments by the trustees, which had the effect of undermining the work they had done on the [long-range facilities plan] and the school closure reports."

Individuals' names are redacted from the report.

The WorkSafeBC report covers the tense months leading up to last October, when B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier fired the nine-member board for not passing a balanced budget.

During those months, VSB senior staff were dealing with a heavy workload that included a the long-range facilities plan, which is for managing school space over the next 15 years; a strategic report on potential school closings and detailed administrative reports on 12 schools initially considered; and the budget for the 2016-17 school year, the report said.

The agency launched its investigation after a Sept. 29 letter from the Ministry of Education expressed concern that the behaviour of some trustees could be perceived as bullying or harassment.

The issues were previously aired in an investigation by lawyer Roslyn Goldner, who was hired by the VSB to look into allegations of workplace bullying.

Those allegations did not come from within the VSB, but in a letter to the Education Ministry from the president of the B.C. School Superintendents Association.

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The allegations emerged when several members of the VSB senior management team had gone on leave.

After firing the board, the Education Minister replaced them with former Delta superintendent Dianne Turner, who remains in place.

She was appointed for a one-year term with an option to extend.

As well as looking into workplace allegations, WorkSafeBC reviewed VSB policies.

The agency's investigation found the VSB had taken reasonable steps to address the hazard of workplace bullying and was compliant with policy requirements.

But it noted that commonly used forms of discipline, such as suspension and dismissal, are not applicable to elected school trustees as they are not employees or considered workers under the provincial School Act.

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The report said the VSB can request other forms of corrective action, such as mediation or limiting trustees' contact with staff to prevent or minimize workplace bullying and harassment.

"However, trustees can refuse to participate without consequence. The lack of effective corrective actions, along with the fear of reprisal, contributed to the VSB workers' reluctance to report bullying and harassment."

The opposition NDP and former Vision trustees have suggested a by-election to restore elected trustees.

Mr. Bernier has rejected that suggestion.

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