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Education Minister Liz Sandals, left, is shown in Toronto on Nov. 25, 2014, announcing that the province has asked Margaret Wilson to conduct a review of the Toronto District School Board.KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/The Globe and Mail

The country's largest school board needs a new approach to governance and leadership, says a report from a government-appointed consultant released on Thursday.

The report criticizes Toronto District School Board trustees for ignoring Ontario's wage-freeze legislation and says the salary for the top-ranking staffer at the board should be cut to $272,000 from $289,000.

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals said she does not have the legal authority at this time to appoint a supervisor to take over operations of the board, but she warned she could take that step if the board does not make changes, giving it one month to respond.

Just days before the release of the report, TDSB trustees voted 10 to seven in favour of keeping director Donna Quan's pay at $289,000 – an amount negotiated unilaterally by the former chair of the board.

Amending Ms. Quan's contract is one of 10 recommendations made by education consultant Margaret Wilson in her 34-page report to Ontario's Education Ministry. She also calls on the province to set up a committee to examine governance options to address the "culture of fear" that pervades the school board. Much of this fear, the report says, stems from trustees interfering in the board's day-to-day affairs.

"What I was hearing was a consistent and persistent call from within for help, from all corners and levels of the board," Ms. Wilson says in her report. "Too many employees and a number of trustees, have no confidence in the ability of the new board to steer this ship away from the rocks."

The culture of fear has "seeped down" to the school level, the report says, with trustees having the final say over who gets promoted to principal and vice-principal.

The report quotes an unnamed principal as saying, "The culture of fear is epidemic. People won't talk."

Many principals and superintendents use their personal phones out of fear that the board's phone and e-mail system is "regularly monitored," the report says.

Ms. Wilson told reporters that she was "deeply disturbed" to learn that even some of her calls were monitored.

"Margaret's observations are troubling," Education Minister Sandals said, accepting the report "in its entirety." Ms. Sandals said the school board has until Feb. 13 to address issues in the report.

TDSB chair Shaun Chen said in an interview that it will be challenging for trustees to meet the deadline, but he said they are prepared to do so. "We must work together to rebuild public confidence in the system," he said. "As a board, we are committed to tackling the issues head on."

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • Better oversight by the audit committee of international partnerships such as a school in Vietnam and the now cancelled agreement with China’s Confucius Institute as well as contracts with food services company Neo City Cafe.
  • Develop policies clearly articulating the roles of the chair, trustees and senior staff.
  • Present a three-year plan to address the condition of schools and reduce unused space‎ in those where enrolment has declined.

‎Ms. Sandals appointed Ms. Wilson to review topic relations between Ms. Quan and several trustees last November. Tensions came to a head over Ms. Quan's refusal to provide then-chair Mari Rutka with a copy of her employment contract, thwarting trustees from reviewing her performance.

Ms. Rutka wrote to Ms. Sandals saying she had been stonewalled by Ms. Quan on the contract and on her efforts to get answers to revelations in The Globe and Mail, including a mysterious $200,000 payment to Neo City.

The report backs up Ms. Rutka's complaint. "The net effect is that the board ... did not get the information it needed to take responsibility for, and correct the apparent discrepancies between [Ms. Quan's] contract ‎and the legislation."

Ms. Sandals wrote to Mr. Bolton in January, 2014, saying Ms. Quan must be paid the same as her predecessor Chris Spence. Mr. Bolton did not share that letter with trustees and unilaterally agreed to pay her $289,000.

Ms. Sandals also wrote to newly appointed Mr. Chen in December reiterating that Ms. Quan must be paid $272,000. However, Mr. Chen was among the 10 trustees who voted in favour of keeping her pay at $289,000.

Ken Lister, a newly elected school trustee, questioned the month-long time frame Ms. Sandals gave the board to implement her directives, saying it seemed too short, given the complex tasks at hand. "I'm not sure about whether that timetable is realistic," he said.

Mr. Lister took issue with Ms. Sandals's order that trustee offices be shuttered and constituency assistants laid off, saying that would not "seem to address any of the governance problems."

However, Mr. Lister agreed with the minister's directive to reduce Ms. Quan's pay, noting that he voted against allowing the director to keep her salary earlier this week. "I think that following the law is important and I think that fiscal accountability is important and I think it's clear what we had to do," he said.

Ms. Rutka welcomed Ms. Wilson's report as "a very comprehensive and clear-eyed review of all that has been going on in the TDSB." She added that the findings supporting the board's right to certain information, such as Ms. Quan's contract, "can only be good for the board."

Ms. Rutka said the next move clearly belongs to the board. "I guess we'll have to see now what the willingness is to undertake some of those things."

With a report from Jill Mahoney.

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