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TDSB's leadership: 'It’s rule by fear. You pick people off, one by one'

Toronto District School Board meeting -- TDSB Director of Education Donna Quan attends a trustees public meeting at the Toronto District School Board building in Toronto, Wednesday December 17, 2014.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Donna Quan, the director of education for the Toronto District School Board, has participated in "destructive attacks" against trustees who have criticized her in an effort to silence their legitimate questions about the way taxpayers' money is spent, says an investigator appointed to review the board.

It has been more than six months since education specialist Margaret Wilson chronicled dysfunction and a "culture of fear" at Canada's largest school board – prompting the government to set up a panel of civic leaders and former trustees to examine whether governance problems at the board are rooted in its size.

Although her mandate has ended, Ms. Wilson has gone further, explaining in interviews with The Globe and Mail her conclusions about Ms. Quan's leadership from her two-month probe: "It's rule by fear. You pick people off, one by one, which is what classic bullies do."

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Ms. Wilson said she felt compelled to go beyond her published report because of the recent outcome of criminal accusations Ms. Quan levelled against Howard Goodman, a former trustee and vocal critic of her leadership.

Throughout 2014, Mr. Goodman had doggedly questioned Ms. Quan about a forensic audit that highlighted questionable payments, only to find himself suddenly silenced. In November of that year, he was charged with forcible confinement and harassment after Ms. Quan told Toronto police he trapped her in an office. The Crown dropped the charges last month, but they effectively sidelined Mr. Goodman.

Ms. Quan declined to answer detailed questions from The Globe about Ms. Wilson's findings. Ms. Quan said she lodged a complaint against Mr. Goodman "based on what I had experienced firsthand." She did not explain why she waited 10 months to call police. "In the end," she said, "it is up to the Crown to determine the probability of a conviction, and I respect their decision."

Ms. Wilson said many of the people she interviewed for her probe questioned Ms. Quan's motivations for having Mr. Goodman charged. Ms. Wilson said many were also skeptical about Ms. Quan's reasons for launching a workplace harassment investigation into former trustee Elizabeth Moyer – who also had been seeking answers about spending when she was accused of "unwelcome hugging." Ms. Wilson recently reviewed her notes and said that 27 of the approximately 40 people she interviewed criticized Ms. Quan's leadership.

"There does seem to be a pattern of planning destructive attacks on people who question – not necessarily disagree – but question what is going on," Ms. Wilson said.

During her 2.5 years as the school board's top-ranking staffer, Ms. Quan has been a polarizing force. The veteran educator's many supporters praise her strong work ethic and say she has a good reputation as a curriculum leader. But her tenure has also been marked by tumultuous events: police officers outside a boardroom to keep trustees from threatening staff and each other; the departure of former chair Chris Bolton five months before his term expired; protests on the board's front lawn over a now-canceled Confucius Institute partnership with the Chinese government.

The board deteriorated so thoroughly that the province stepped in.

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Mr. Goodman and Ms. Moyer agreed to speak to The Globe about their ordeals. In his first interview since the charges were dropped, Mr. Goodman said he received warnings from education contacts over five months that Ms. Quan might try to have him charged.

"I believe that the charges were a deeply troubling misuse of the justice system," Mr. Goodman said.

Ms. Wilson said she left many criticisms of Ms. Quan out of her report because some staff she interviewed said they feared they might be identified and subjected to reprisals. But she said she briefed Education Minister Liz Sandals about many of her concerns, including what she saw as "real fear" among senior staff.

Ms. Wilson shared an e-mail she received from former board chair Mari Rutka, urging her to protect those who spoke to her: "Staff in particular have said to me that they will not come [to be interviewed] if they cannot be assured of protection and confidentiality," Ms. Rutka wrote.

Ms. Wilson said she ended her probe feeling "depressed and distressed" about morale at the school board, where she began her career as a teacher more than four decades ago.

"Too much is done secretively and there is no healthy debate on significant issues." And one of the reasons for that, Ms. Wilson said, is the silencing of dissenters.

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Unwelcome hugging

Elizabeth Moyer, an information technology expert, was chair of the audit committee when she began clashing with Ms. Quan in mid-2012. Ms. Moyer said in an interview that she repeatedly asked to see a forensic audit report into Focus on Youth, a school board program that distributes money to organizations for inner-city summer camps. Questions had been raised about whether the program, run by executive superintendent Jim Spyropoulos, might not be following school board policies for procuring goods and services or awarding contracts.

Staff refused to give members of the audit committee copies of the audit report. During one committee meeting, Ms. Moyer recalled, Ms. Quan pulled her aside and warned her to stop asking for the report.

"I was shocked," she said in the interview. "I was just trying to do my job."

Ms. Moyer wrote to Ms. Sandals in May, 2013, asking for an investigation into "allegations of inappropriate or illegal financial dealing" at the school board. The next month, Ms. Sandals appointed Ernst & Young to conduct a forensic audit.

Two days later, Ms. Quan informed Ms. Moyer she was launching an investigation into her for workplace harassment. The probe, conducted by an outside lawyer, was in response to a complaint from Mr. Spyropoulos that Ms. Moyer pressed him to employ her two daughters for a summer through Focus on Youth. Mr. Spyropoulos also accused Ms. Moyer of hugging him and touching his face in a way he called "unwelcome."

During the interview with The Globe, Ms. Moyer questioned why the person whose program was the subject of the forensic audit suddenly recalled that, more than a year earlier, he had felt pressured by her and was uncomfortable with how she hugged him.

"Who in the general public would say that is not a set-up?" Ms. Moyer said. "It really muzzled me."

Ms. Quan told The Globe she has to act on any complaint of workplace harassment. Mr. Spyropoulos said in an e-mail response to questions that he was "concerned about a pattern of behaviour over a period of time."

Janice Rubin, the lawyer who conducted the harassment probe, concluded that Ms. Moyer should have asked for Mr. Spyropoulos's consent before hugging him. Ms. Rubin said she did not have enough information to make a determination about the propriety of Ms. Moyer's daughters getting jobs through Focus on Youth. But the damage was done. A headline in the Toronto Star read: "School board reprimands Trustee Moyer over sexual harassment complaints."

The watchdog

Howard Goodman is a stickler for accountability. With a background in financial controls, he pays careful attention to process and the fine print. So when he questioned a $200,000 legal settlement the board had made and he was repeatedly denied answers about why, he would not let go of the issue.

The settlement related to a food services contract with the TDSB in 2009. A catering company, Neo City Café, was denied the opportunity to make a bid because it missed the deadline. The day the bid was rejected, Spiros Papathanasakis, a political organizer who has no role at the school board or the catering company, urged the board's head of procurement to accept it anyway. He was rebuffed.

Neo City sued the school board. Board insiders felt the TDSB would win the case. In its statement of defence, the board said it rejected the late bid because it owed a "duty of fairness" to those that met the deadline.

But just days before the trial was to begin in mid-2013, the school board settled with Neo City. Part of the settlement included a payment of more than $200,000 in unrelated invoices dating back three years. Mr. Goodman said he wondered how a small company could wait so long to be paid so much money. When he examined the Neo City file, he said, he found hand-written invoices for the $200,000.

When trustees got to review the Neo City settlement more than a year and a half later, Mr. Goodman said he was surprised by what he saw. The 17 computer-generated invoices dated from July 5, 2010, to July 29, 2011, in the package looked totally different from the hand-written ones, he said.

The Ernst & Young forensic audit ordered by the Education Minister also reviewed the Neo City settlement – and Mr. Goodman said he believed the auditors might provide the answers he was seeking. Only one thing prevented him from talking to them, he said – Ms. Quan refused to convene a meeting of the audit committee.

Mr. Goodman kept pushing to speak to the auditors, which led to a heated one-on-one exchange with Ms. Quan in an office on Jan. 7, 2014. During the meeting, Sheila Cary-Meagher, a trustee and one of Ms. Quan's staunchest allies, opened the door and asked if she could interrupt. "No, you may not," Mr. Goodman said he told her. A couple of minutes later, Mr. Goodman said, Ms. Cary-Meagher opened the door again and said she was waiting for Ms. Quan.

Mr. Goodman said in the interview he told Ms. Cary-Meagher, "Donna can leave any time she wants." Shortly after, he said, Ms. Quan left the room unimpeded.

Two months later, Ms. Cary-Meagher lodged a complaint against Mr. Goodman with the school board's ethics committee. In her complaint dated March 12, 2014, she said Ms. Quan was "visibly shaken" as she left the room. Ms. Cary-Meagher did not respond to a request for comment.

At one point, Ms. Quan was prepared to let the complaint be dropped. She told members of the ethics committee last August she would work things out with Mr. Goodman, according to three sources who attended the meeting. Instead, she elevated an internal complaint into a matter for the police. On Nov. 9, 2014 – just days after Ms. Quan told Mr. Goodman, "I'm going to get you," according to three trustees who said they heard the comment during a private board meeting – she went to the police and accused him of blocking her from leaving the office where they had argued 10 months earlier.

Three days after she spoke with police, Mr. Goodman heard a knock at his door.

The arrest

He had an inkling why the two officers were on his front porch. Some of his colleagues at the school board had warned him to be careful, yet he said it still was a shock that Ms. Quan would escalate their differences into a criminal complaint.

Mr. Goodman was handcuffed in the back seat of the cruiser for a 15-minute drive from his home in North Toronto to 32 Division, where he was charged with forcible confinement and criminal harassment.

He was released a few hours later. But for the next seven months, he and his wife, Karen, and their two sons endured the notoriety that comes with criminal charges, he said. For the first couple of months, he said, he avoided being in public. Every time he Googled his name, dozens of headlines popped up about the charges. "There's been a lot of damage," he said.

His name was cleared on June 10 in an Ontario courtroom, when assistant Crown attorney Anna Stanford declared his behaviour "did not rise to the level of criminal activity."

Mr. Goodman never got to question the Ernst & Young auditors. He could not attend when the audit committee met with them in February because the terms of his release barred him from being within 100 metres of school board headquarters.

The fallout

Since Ms. Wilson submitted her report – which documented problems including fears among many employees that their e-mails and telephone calls are monitored – four of the eight senior staffers who reported directly to Ms. Quan have resigned.

Ms. Quan's treatment of Mr. Goodman, who did not seek re-election last fall, has left some questioning her leadership. "She derailed his life for the better part of a year, brought unnecessary angst and heartache, and now it's found groundless – and she's director of education for a school board?" said John Campbell, a former board chair and now a Toronto city councillor. "She doesn't belong in that job."

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About the Authors

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

National reporter

Greg has been a reporter with The Globe since 2005. He has probed a wide variety of topics, including police malfeasance, corruption and international corporate bribery. He was written extensively about the Airbus affair, offshore tax evasion and, most recently, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his criminal ties. More

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