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TDSB Director of Education Donna Quan attends a trustees public meeting at the Toronto District School Board building in Toronto, Wednesday December 17, 2014.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Trustees of the Toronto District School Board voted on Monday to leave the top staff official's salary intact, despite a letter from the Education Minister last month reiterating that director Donna Quan should be paid $17,000 less.

The vote followed sharp debate among trustees, with 10 in favour of retaining her pay at $289,000, and seven against. Before the vote and arguments on the motion during the public portion of the meeting, trustees debated the matter for three hours in private.

"The board has spoken clearly," TDSB chair Shaun Chen told reporters after the meeting. "They believe the director's salary should be kept at the status quo."

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Trustees had their first opportunity to see Ms. Quan's contract at a lengthy closed-door meeting last month, where they debated whether to cut her salary or leave the contract intact.

Ms. Quan's contract was unilaterally negotiated and approved by former TDSB chair Chris Bolton. He resigned last June, five months before his term ended, leaving trustees to deal with the fallout, including the fact that the contract ignores an edict from Education Minister Liz Sandals to freeze the director's compensation.

In a letter to Mr. Bolton last January, Ms. Sandals stipulated that under the provincial legislation freezing compensation for public-sector workers, Ms. Quan should be paid $272,000, the same amount as her predecessor, Chris Spence.

Pamela Gough was one of four trustees who said they opposed the motion to leave the director's salary in place. She said the Education Minister has twice given the board "great clarity" on the matter in her letters in saying the director's salary should be $272,000. "To me, that's crystal clear and the board should be abiding by that."

Howard Kaplan disagreed, saying other school boards have awarded pay increases to their directors and there have been no consequences from the Education Ministry. "Our loyalty is to our employee, not the ministry," Mr. Kaplan said. "We owe Donna that much."

Trustee Jerry Chadwick, a retired school principal, vehemently objected to Mr. Kaplan's assertion.

‎"I always say do the right thing even when no one's looking," Mr. Chadwick said. "I think we have to be role models for our kids."

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Ms. Quan provided her contract to Shaun Chen, the TDSB's newly elected chair, last month. His predecessor, Mari Rutka, had failed to obtain a copy despite repeated efforts.

Asked why she gave her contract to Mr. Chen after stonewalling Ms. Rutka, Ms. Quan told The Globe and Mail without elaborating: "The request has a process to follow … and that process now has been followed."

Tensions between Ms. Quan and as many as 10 of the school board's 22 trustees came to a head over her initial refusal to release her employment contract. Ms. Sandals appointed education consultant Margaret Wilson to investigate the toxic relations between the board's highest-ranking staffer and trustees. This was in response to a letter from Ms. Rutka, alleging that the director had blocked trustees from probing a series of transactions revealed by The Globe and Mail, including a mysterious $200,000 payment to a food-services company and the board's ties to the Confucius Institute language program controlled by the Chinese government.

Ms. Wilson is set to release a report later this week.

Trustees were provided with a handout at Monday night's meeting, containing a list of 21 other public school boards in Ontario where the top staff official also received a pay raise in 2013. The handout bolstered a motion made by vice-chair Sheila Carey-Meagher to leave Ms. Quan's salary intact.

"This has been a very interesting learning experience for me on how not to hire a director," said Alexander Brown, who was elected a trustee last fall.

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