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Chris Bolton, Chair of the TDSB Board.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The chair of the Toronto District School Board intervened in a dispute between senior staff and a catering company, documents show, raising new questions about governance practices at Canada's largest board.

Chris Bolton repeatedly urged staff members to overturn their decision not to renew a lease held by a Toronto food services company, according to copies of internal e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail. The company's owner was embroiled in a lawsuit with the TDSB at the time over a tender for an unrelated cafeteria services contract.

Mr. Bolton's involvement alarmed senior staff at the TDSB – leases are negotiated by staff, not trustees. Tony Brown, then the board's general counsel, said in an e-mail dated June 19, 2012, to then-chief financial officer Vidyia Rego that he found it "profoundly disturbing" the chair was trying to circumvent the process for procuring cafeteria services.

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"Political interference will bring disrepute to the board," Mr. Brown said in the e-mail. "Individual trustee has NO POWER to order this to happen."

Mr. Brown and Ms. Rego declined to comment for this story.

Mr. Bolton said in an interview that he advocates for groups all the time. In this case, he said, the owner of the food services company sent him a letter asking for his help.

"My role is to make sure that the board operates in a smooth and orderly fashion," he said.

But sources close to the situation said his involvement highlights how trustees can overstep their authority. A recent forensic audit by Ernst & Young LLP described a "culture of fear" at the school board, where staff feel pressure by trustees not to follow policies and worry about losing their jobs if they disobey orders.

The TDSB has taken steps to bolster its governance practices. The board passed a motion at a meeting last week, calling for new conflict-of-interest rules governing the participation of trustees and staff in external organizations. The Globe has reported that Mr. Bolton did not declare his role as founder of a charitable organization that received provincial funding from the TDSB.

The TDSB also passed a motion requiring trustees to vet all lawsuits against the board dating back to 2010. Howard Goodman, the trustee who tabled the motion, said staff complained to him that they were pressed into violating TDSB rules over the lawsuit from the owner of the food services company.

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"We need a policy that lets trustees make sure every lawsuit is settled in a way that delivers the greatest benefit to our students," Mr. Goodman said in an interview.

According to the e-mails, Mr. Bolton got involved with the dispute over a lease held by Neo City Café, which ran a catering business in a school building for eight years until July, 2012. The company frequently caters school board functions and also has a food services lease at Yorkdale Secondary School.

"I would suggest that you take over the file and do this right," Mr. Bolton told a senior manager in an e-mail dated May 17, 2012.

When the manager told him the TDSB was exploring other options, Mr. Bolton appealed directly to Chris Spence, director of education at the time. "Can anything be done about this?" he asked in an e-mail dated May 22.

Neo City Café did not end up getting its lease renewed at the former Bathurst Heights high school, which closed its doors in 2001 due to low enrolment. The TDSB had leased the building to several tenants, including Neo City Café and an adult learning centre. The school reopened as John Polanyi Collegiate Institute in September, 2011.

An attempt by Neo City Café's owner, George Tsiopoulos, to bid on a contract for cafeteria services also led him to sue the TDSB in May, 2009.

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In a statement of claim filed in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice, Mr. Tsiopoulos accuses the TDSB of "arbitrarily" refusing to accept his bid on the grounds that it was allegedly submitted after the deadline.

The TDSB says in a statement of defence that the bid was rejected because it was three minutes late. The board said it owed a "duty of fairness" to other bidders that met the deadline to not accept any late submissions.

Mr. Bolton said Neo City Café sent him a letter saying the company's bid was not late. Because of the company's lawsuit, he said, he appealed to TDSB staff members to reverse their decision on the lease.

"I just thought that they should take a look at the two of them together," he said. "Why would we try and exacerbate the situation?"

Mr. Tsiopoulos did not return several messages from The Globe. He settled out of court with the TDSB last June, according to court documents.

"Whatever was owing to my guy was resolved," said Simon Schneiderman, a lawyer for Mr. Tsiopoulos.

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With a report from Stephanie Chambers

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