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The Globe and Mail

Toronto school board budget passes without incident

Police officers stand guard outside a Toronto District School Board meeting in Toronto on March 5, 2013.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Trustees at Canada's largest school board held one their most unusual meetings Wednesday with two police officers stationed outside the boardroom to keep trustees from threatening staff and each other. Toronto District School Board chair Chris Bolton made the unusual request for police at the meeting after revelations in recent days of a culture of intimidation and bullying at the board.

Voices were raised at times and one trustee told another not to interrupt, but as the TDSB meeting progressed, the officers did not need to come in the room. In fact, the police officers left about two hours into the public meeting.

The boardroom was packed. The overflow crowd was directed to the cafeteria down the hallway. The crowd mainly consisted of Somali Canadians both in favour and against a task force report that trustees were considering to provide extra supports – postsecondary scholarships, a Somali heritage month and Somali-focused curriculum – to Somali children.

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Mr. Bolton said the police presence was to send a strong message that bad behaviour would not be tolerated. But other trustees believed it to be excessive.

"I believe this is not about the conflict, but managing it, and I would argue that there are ways to constructively resolve conflict without bringing in the police," said long-time trustee Shelley Laskin.

Earlier in the evening, trustees walked passed media, refusing to comment on a private session where bad behaviour was discussed.

The police officers went into the private session but were asked to leave shortly after. Some trustees said the meeting was orderly and without incident.

Mr. Bolton said he has received half a dozen complaints in the past six months about trustee behaviour.

He said he was disappointed the province wouldn't step in. He wanted the provincial government to provide a mediator to help resolve disputes.

On Wednesday, trustees passed a balanced budget. It was the first time the TDSB has balanced its books without having to make cuts to programs since it was created through amalgamation in 1998.

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Overshadowing the budget was an incident last week that prompted the board's director of education to write a letter levelling accusations that TDSB trustees created a work environment in which staff felt threatened and intimidated.

The TDSB is unlike any other board in the province. Two recent audit reports have found that 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.

The incident that pushed Donna Quan, the director of education, to write a letter involved long-time trustee Howard Goodman.

Last 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 secular boards across the province. The TDSB, 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. Mr. Goodman is a vice-president at OPSBA.

Ms. Quan said in an interview this week that 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.

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