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Toronto District School Board infighting takes centre stage

Donna Quan, director of education at the TDSB, will meet with the board’s chair and vice-chair Tuesday morning to discuss a letter she wrote describing the ‘unacceptable’ culture at the organization.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The head of Canada's largest school board says she wants her colleagues to move from a culture of bullying to one of respect.

Speaking for the first time since she levelled accusations against Toronto District School Board trustees of creating a work environment where staff felt threatened and intimidated, director of education Donna Quan told The Globe and Mail on Monday she hopes the situation can be resolved and personal clashes can be set aside. She is meeting with the board's chair and vice-chair on Tuesday morning.

"We do not object to having trustees debate and discuss the decisions. However, when that conversation crosses the line and interferes in a way that produces anxiety and fear, then there's a distinct difference," Ms. Quan said. "This is about a corporate culture that could perform more positively … if there was a respectful learning and working environment."

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In a letter to the board's chair on Friday, Ms. Quan described an "unacceptable" culture in which staff members were subjected to abusive, threatening and insulting comments by some elected trustees. The letter was sparked by an incident last week involving Ms. Quan and a trustee, and pushed the TDSB chair to make the unusual request of having a police officer at Wednesday's board meeting. A police presence will be requested for other board meetings, as well as committee meetings, if the situation gets out of hand.

Ms. Quan said she does not believe it is excessive to have a police presence at the meeting, because staff have expressed concerns about safety.

The incident that pushed Ms. Quan to write the letter involved Howard Goodman, a long-time trustee at the board. On Wednesday, after a committee meeting, Mr. Goodman confronted Ms. Quan over unpaid fees to the Ontario Public School Boards' Association (OPSBA), an umbrella organization that represents trustees across the province. The school board, Mr. Goodman said, had directed staff to pay the outstanding fees of about $382,000. Staff failed to do so, despite phone calls and e-mails from OPSBA.

Ms. Quan said the fees have not been paid because another trustee put forward a motion to remove the board from OPSBA. That motion was defeated at a recent committee meeting, and has to be brought to the board for ratification before any fees are paid, Ms. Quan said.

In an e-mail sent Monday to Ms. Quan, Mr. Goodman wrote that he thought his behaviour after a meeting did not go beyond passionate discourse common in political arenas. "If you or any members of our staff did feel my behaviour on Wednesday evening to be in any way inappropriate, I apologize without reservation. It was not my intention to cause distress," he wrote.

Ms. Quan declined to discuss the confrontation with Mr. Goodman.

The events of the past week are raising new questions about the role of trustees, and their involvement with bureaucrats at school boards. Two recent audit reports have found that TDSB trustees overstep the boundaries of their posts and are involved in permits, procurements and staffing. A report in December described a "culture of fear" at the school board. Staff have been pressed by trustees not to follow policies, and fear losing their jobs if they disobey trustees' orders.

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The TDSB has always been deeply divided along political ideological lines. But education insiders say a lack of clear leadership on education issues from Ms. Quan and chair Chris Bolton has placed the infighting at centre stage. Mr. Bolton told The Globe and Mail he has received half a dozen complaints in the past six months about threatening behaviour by trustees. Those complaints, he said, have not been addressed because he is waiting for an updated code of conduct from a working group that has been meeting for more than a year.

Sheila Cary-Meagher, a long-time TDSB trustee, said she believes the problem is much deeper: Trustees do not understand their role and the process. Trustees are meant to vote collectively on policy, such as special help for students who are underachieving, or building playgrounds, which board staff would then carry out. Ms. Cary-Meagher said that, all too often, trustees who do not get what they want in board meeting votes "do it through the backroom and through harassing staff."

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