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Toronto Education Minister plans meet with TDSB chair amid turmoil

Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals scrums with journalists after question period in Toronto's Queen's Park Legislature on Tuesday November 18 2014.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Editor's Note: All charges against Howard Goodman were dropped by the Crown on June 10, 2015. More information here

A culture of intimidation pervades Canada's largest school board, in which trustees who ask uncomfortable questions or seek greater accountability are subjected to "public shaming," a veteran trustee has told the province's Education Minister.

Pamela Gough is the latest trustee at the Toronto District School Board who has written to Education Minister Liz Sandals expressing concerns about the growing schism between several elected officials and the board's top-ranking staffer.

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The Globe and Mail revealed this week that TDSB chair Mari Rutka has called on the government to intervene with director of education Donna Quan, whom she alleges has blocked trustees from probing controversial partnerships and payments and refuses to release her employment contract.

Ms. Sandals said on Tuesday that she takes Ms. Rutka's call for intervention seriously and plans to meet with her this month.

"I'm concerned when I have any school board that seems to have a level of distress," Ms. Sandals told reporters at the Ontario legislature.

Ms. Rutka declined to comment or publicly release a copy of her letter to Ms. Sandals.

School board sources allege Ms. Quan has refused to provide trustees with her employment contract, thwarting their efforts to review her performance, and has stonewalled them on several decisions by board staff revealed in The Globe and Mail, including a mysterious $200,000 payment and education partnerships in Asia.

Ms. Rutka and Ms. Gough are part of a growing chorus turning to the province for help as relations between a group of trustees and Ms. Quan become increasingly toxic. The Globe has reported that trustee Irene Atkinson wrote a letter to Ms. Sandals last week asking for an "arm's length independent investigation."

Ms. Quan has declined to respond to questions from The Globe.

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In her letter sent last week, Ms. Gough expresses concerns about a "pattern of backlash" at the TDSB. "The trustees who have been the most inquisitive, the most assertive in asking questions that might be uncomfortable are being targeted for public censure and public shaming," she said in an interview.

Ms. Gough's letter names two trustees – Howard Goodman and Elizabeth Moyer – who clashed with some of their colleagues on the board and Ms. Quan after they raised concerns about a lack of transparency surrounding spending.

Mr. Goodman has pushed for transparency on a $200,000 payment Ms. Quan authorized to a catering company that supplied no supporting documentation for the services it said it provided.

He was charged with forcible confinement and criminal harassment last week relating to alleged incidents involving Ms. Quan. School board sources said Mr. Goodman allegedly blocked Ms. Quan from leaving a room at the board office early this year. His lawyer, Mark Sandler, said Mr. Goodman would vigorously defend himself against the allegations.

Ms. Moyer was censured by the board earlier this year after an outside investigation accused her of sexually harassing two senior staff members. Ms. Moyer went to the Ministry of Education in 2013 requesting an investigation into spending by a TDSB employment program for youths.

Mr. Goodman did not seek re-election last month, and both Ms. Moyer and Ms. Rutka lost their seats in the recent election.

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Ms. Sandals said the fact that the chairwoman is leaving the board this month does not diminish the fact that concerns exist. "We need to have a look at what the existing trustees have to say about what has happened at the board and we also need to be working with the future trustees," Ms. Sandals said.

Ontario Progressive Conservative education critic Garfield Dunlop said the minister needs to appoint a supervisor.

"This is not healthy for the students, this is not healthy for the image of the board, and of course, it's not healthy for education," he said.

New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath called the minister's response a good first step. "It's kind of alarming that the problems continue there. It's important to get this thing figured out."

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