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Donna Quan, Director of Education of the Toronto District School Board, during a press conference in Toronto, October 23 2013.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Donna Quan is stepping down as the top-ranking staffer of the Toronto District School Board amid lingering controversy over her leadership.

For the next 20 months, until her TDSB employment contract expires, Ms. Quan will be seconded to York University, where she will conduct a study for the provincial government on how school boards across Ontario can collect better demographic information on their students.

TDSB trustees struck a committee at a special board meeting on Monday to find a successor to Ms. Quan. She will remain at the school board until Dec. 11, when the committee expects to appoint an interim director of education.

School board sources said the organization could not adequately address the dysfunction gripping the TDSB as long as Ms. Quan remained at the helm.

During her nearly three years as education director, Ms. Quan has been a polarizing force. The veteran educator's many supporters praise her strong work ethic. 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; and protests on the board's front lawn over a now-cancelled Confucius Institute partnership with the Chinese government.

The board deteriorated so thoroughly that the province stepped in. In a report earlier this year commissioned by Education Minister Liz Sandals, consultant Margaret Wilson chronicled a litany of problems at the board, including micromanaging by Ms. Quan and fears among many employees that their e-mails and telephone calls are monitored.

Ms. Wilson's findings prompted the government to set up a panel of civic leaders and former trustees to examine whether governance problems at the TDSB are rooted in its size. The panel documented many of the same problems as Ms. Wilson, according to sources.

Ms. Sandals has not said when she plans to release the panel's report. As for Ms. Quan, her secondment to York provides a "graceful way out" for her and the trustees, Ms. Wilson said in an interview.

Trustee Pamela Gough said Ms. Quan's departure will help the school board make a fresh start. "I think it's a dignified exit and it's a chance for the TDSB to turn the page," Ms. Gough said.

Ms. Quan assumes her new duties on Dec. 15 at York, where she will report directly to the deputy education minister. As a senior adviser to the government and an adjunct professor at York's faculty of education, Ms. Quan will lead a study on the feasibility of requiring all school boards in Ontario to collect the same type of detailed demographic information on students pioneered by the TDSB.

TDSB chair Robin Pilkey described Ms. Quan in a statement as a "passionate and committed advocate for public education."

Ms. Quan said in a message to all employees on Monday evening that she is leaving the TDSB with "mixed emotions" after working there in various roles for three decades. "My time at the TDSB has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career," she said. Under her TDSB contract, which expires in August, 2017, Ms. Quan earns an annual salary of $272,000.

Ms. Sandals said the province hopes to use census data in the research project led by Ms. Quan to help address why students in some areas do better than students in others. The minister said the TDSB conducts the largest survey of student achievement and well-being in Canada.

KHowlett@globeandmail.com