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Chris Bolton, Chair of the TDSB Board.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The chair of Canada's largest school board has resigned, capping a four-decade career as an educator that has been mired in controversy in recent months.

Chris Bolton announced on Friday evening that he is stepping down as chair and a trustee of the Toronto District School Board, effective immediately. In a letter to parents in Trinity-Spadina, the community where he has served as trustee since 2003, he said he was leaving with "mixed emotions" for personal reasons.

The announcement that Mr. Bolton is leaving five months before his term expires came as a surprise to many other trustees – he had earlier said he was not seeking re-election in November.

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His departure follows revelations by The Globe and Mail that TDSB staff investigated donations for a Toronto elementary school Mr. Bolton directed to his own charity before he was elected trustee. Internal reports obtained by The Globe raised questions about his dual roles more than a decade ago as a school principal and, according to one report, the "alter ego" of his charity.

The news of his departure also comes just days before trustees are set to vote Wednesday on whether the TDSB should pursue its controversial partnership with the Chinese government. Mr. Bolton was the driving force behind the school board's Confucius Institute. The institute opened last month and was set to offer Mandarin programs funded and supervised by the Chinese government to elementary students in September.

But the future of the relationship between TDSB and Confucius has been cast in doubt, after an online petition signed by hundreds of parents raised concerns about an organization that trains instructors to self-censor topics that are politically taboo in China.

A source told The Globe she saw Mr. Bolton cleaning out his trustee office last Wednesday, after the TDSB's planning and priorities committee passed a motion calling on the board as a whole and staff to investigate concerns about the Confucius Institute. The institute was to be his legacy project, according to another source.

"It is with mixed emotions and much deliberation that I have come to this decision," Mr. Bolton said in his letter, which offers no explanation for his departure.

He did not respond to telephone messages or e-mails from The Globe on Friday, but he told The Toronto Star and CTV News, where he also hinted about his next career move.

"In the future," he told The Star, "we will probably see each other, but just not in the capacity as chair or trustee of the Toronto District School Board."

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During his four years as chair, Mr. Bolton has been a polarizing force on the board.

Trustee Shelley Laskin, who is not one of Mr. Bolton's allies, said she was "completely surprised" by the announcement. "It's very unusual," she said.

Long-time trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher, a staunch supporter of Mr. Bolton, said she was saddened by the news. She blamed his opponents on the board for subjecting him to a "bombardment" of questioning. "It's worn him down," she said.

A group of trustees attempted last month, after the Globe stories were published, to get Mr. Bolton to publicly discuss the investigation into his time at Ryerson, which lasted four years. However, his supporters on the board voted against the motion.

None of the reports prepared by staff into Mr. Bolton's conduct were shared with trustees, which has left some concerned about transparency. A TDSB spokesman said the file was closed in 2005, but the outcome is not known. The TDSB says it is a legal and personnel matter.

A law firm retained by the TDSB accused Mr. Bolton of breaching his fiduciary duties by directing donations for Ryerson Community School to his own charity rather than to the TDSB. Among the donations Mr. Bolton directed to his charity was $50,000 from the Atkinson Foundation. Mr. Bolton was principal of Ryerson at the time. His charity, Friends of Community Schools, collected a 5-per-cent management fee from the donations for Ryerson.

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Mr. Bolton has defended his actions, saying there was "nothing untoward about it."

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