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Officials call for rules to make partnerships more transparent after questions over former chair Chris Bolton’s role in Vietnam school deal.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Trustees of Canada's largest school board met privately with senior staff to demand answers about who led the negotiations on a new international agreement and what role former chair Chris Bolton played.

Questions by Toronto District School Board trustees centred on a consulting contract with a private school in Vietnam that teaches the Ontario curriculum. Trustees repeatedly asked who led the talks, why Mr. Bolton was at the Vietnam school in June and whether he accepted a job as chief executive officer of the school before resigning as chair of the TDSB, according to a number of trustees who were at the meeting.

Mr. Bolton abruptly left the school board last month after revelations by The Globe and Mail that he directed donations for a Toronto elementary school to his own charity. Mr. Bolton has not returned several e-mails and telephone messages from The Globe. He told The Toronto Star he has signed an offer of employment at the Vietnam school, but is awaiting a firm contract before moving overseas.

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The Vietnam deal is part of a push by the cash-strapped TDSB to raise new revenues by expanding international programming at home and abroad. The board has an annual operating budget of $2.9-billion.

This is the second time the TDSB has become embroiled in controversy over an overseas partnership. Trustees are looking for a way out of an agreement with the Chinese government that offers students Confucius Institute courses subsidized and controlled by Beijing – an initiative led by Mr. Bolton.

Trustees say they were not given an opportunity to vet or approve the Vietnamese and Chinese deals. Both cases, they say, highlight the need for formal policies to make the school board's partnerships with international organizations more open and transparent.

"It's very troubling that the board still doesn't have a clear understanding of what actually happened," trustee Howard Goodman said in an interview.

Several trustees said they were stonewalled by education director Donna Quan and one of her deputies, Gen Ling Chang, during a special board meeting this month.

Mr. Bolton suddenly resigned as chair and trustee of the TDSB on June 13, five months before his term was to expire. The following Friday, he was in Ho Chi Minh City at the Canadian International School (CIS-Vietnam). Ms. Quan confirmed to The Globe that he was there the same day as Ms. Chang, the TDSB's associate director.

Ms. Quan, who was promoted to the top staff job under Mr. Bolton's chairmanship, told The Globe she did not ask Ms. Chang why he was at CIS-Vietnam, and referred all other questions to him and the school's board of directors. Neither Mr. Bolton nor the school responded to several e-mails and telephone messages from The Globe.

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Trustees wanted to know whether Mr. Bolton was set to succeed Mark Fenwick, who stepped down as CEO in June. However, the school's new leadership team for the 2014-15 academic year, unveiled on its website last week, no longer includes a CEO. The two new principals are from TDSB schools in the downtown Toronto community where Mr. Bolton was trustee.

Sheryl Freeman has taken a leave of absence as principal of Central Technical School to become secondary principal at CIS-Vietman as well as chair of the leadership team. Mark Bell has taken a leave as vice-principal of Ryerson Community School to become elementary principal.

Ms. Quan called it a "coincidence" that Ms. Freeman and Mr. Bell are from schools in Mr. Bolton's former ward.

According to trustees, Ms. Quan stressed during the private meeting that TDSB staff were not asked to recruit a headmaster as part of the board's contract.

Under its three-year agreement with CIS-Vietnam, the TDSB recruits the leadership team and teachers, helps develop the curriculum and enrolls Grade 12 students from Vietnam who want to study in Canada in TDSB schools.

Trustee Gerri Gershon is pleased the TDSB will earn revenue from the Vietnam partnership, but is concerned that senior staff have not answered questions about Mr. Bolton's role.

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"I just find it very puzzling," she said.

Ms. Quan would not say how much the TDSB expects to earn from the contract. She was also vague with The Globe about who led the talks that resulted in the TDSB supplanting the District School Board of Niagara as consultant to the school. Niagara's five-year agreement expired on June 30 and generated about $300,000 in annual revenues.

The Niagara board had recruited a new headmaster for the school, and presented a candidate to directors in January but never heard back, said a board spokesman.

Kevin Maves, chair of the Niagara board, told The Globe he had no idea the TDSB was in talks with CIS-Vietnam. The board was surprised to learn in April that its contract would not be renewed.

"I think they could have at least given us the courtesy of calling and letting us know what they were doing," he said.

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