Donna Quan, education director of the Toronto District School Board, did not mince her words in a memo to trustees last fall. Their tone revealed "bias" and their line of questioning was "unfair," she wrote, summing up the behaviour as an "extreme disappointment" to her entire senior management team.
The memo, titled Statement of Concern, landed in trustees' inboxes late one evening in October, a few days after a meeting where they voted to sever the school board's ties to the Confucius Institute, a controversial language and culture program controlled by the Chinese government. Several school board sources said they were shocked that Ms. Quan, who reports to the board's 22 trustees as their sole employee, had publicly reprimanded her bosses.
Pamela Gough, one of six trustees who spoke passionately at the meeting in favour of ending the board's involvement with the Confucius Institute, said she was simply doing her job by asking pointed questions about an agreement unilaterally negotiated by former chair Chris Bolton and never vetted by her or her colleagues.
"The director should not be making comments on what trustees ask or what they don't ask," Ms. Gough said in an interview.
TDSB spokesman Ryan Bird said Ms. Quan sent the memo because she heard concerns from a number of people about the meeting. "She felt it was important to pass that perspective on to trustees," he said.
Ms. Quan's memo is symptomatic of deep-seated governance problems at Canada's largest school board, the sources say. Margaret Wilson, a consultant appointed by the Ontario government, will weigh in on the toxic relations between Ms. Quan and several trustees in a report set for release this coming week.
There is no easy fix. Ms. Wilson's probe caps a string of reports chronicling governance problems at the board. Instead of mutual respect, say education experts and sources close to the board, relations between trustees and senior staff have been characterized by a lack of trust and stonewalling, with both Ms. Quan and Mr. Bolton not sharing information with trustees.
"We've had this sort of semi-dictatorship that's been going on, and so many people have been left out of the loop," said Donna Cansfield, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister who was chair of the school board during a tumultuous time in 2002, when the government appointed a supervisor and stripped trustees of their power to spend money.
In her report, Ms. Wilson is widely expected to focus on the board's highest-ranking staffer, criticizing Ms. Quan's toxic relations with as many as 10 current and former trustees. Ms. Quan played a key role in several transactions revealed by The Globe and Mail, all of which highlight a lack of transparency at the board: The Confucius Institute accord; a mysterious $200,000 payment to a food services company; a consulting contract with a private school in Vietnam. In every instance, Ms. Quan either refused to answer trustees' questions or delayed handing over documents.
Education Minister Liz Sandals has said the acrimonious relations at the board threaten to undermine public confidence in the education system. Whether there is any fallout for Ms. Quan, however, remains to be seen.
School board sources say many of the governance problems have their roots in a lack of clarity surrounding the roles and responsibilities of senior administration and trustees and who works for whom. As director, Ms. Quan presides over day-to-day operations and is accountable to both trustees and the Education Minister. Trustees are responsible for balancing the books and approving policies designed by staff. And the chair of the board has no function other than to speak on behalf of the board.
"The chair is a mirror, reflecting the will of the board, not a flashlight that shows direction and leads," said Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association.
He said Ms. Quan's memo is an example of how the Toronto board's governance needs to be strengthened to distinguish the roles of the director and trustees.
"I can assure you," said Mr. Barrett, who is also chair of the Durham District School Board, "my director never would send such a statement."
The acrimony at the Toronto board has exposed sharp divisions among trustees, with some pushing for more transparency from senior staff and others staunchly supporting Ms. Quan. Ms. Sandals intervened last November in response to a letter from then-chair Mari Rutka, alleging that Ms. Quan had blocked trustees from probing the payment to the food services company and the partnerships in Asia, including the Confucius Institute.
Ms. Sandals appointed Ms.Wilson to examine operational issues at the school board. But the minister has said she also plans to conduct a broader review into the structure of the school board, including whether it is too big to function properly. The TDSB, a product of the amalgamation of several boards in the late 1990s, has an annual operating budget of $3-billion and more than 246,000 students in 600 schools.
Former senior school board staff and trustees say the governance problems have little to do with size. Gail Nyberg, executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank and a former chair of the school board, said the province needs to bring in a mediator to work with trustees and senior staff to help rebuild trust. During the 15 years she was a school trustee, she said, she never saw the kind of breakdown in communications that is now plaguing the TDSB.
"It would seem to me that the trust on both sides has eroded to the point where nobody trusts anything that anybody says," Ms. Nyberg said.
Tensions between Ms. Quan and trustees came to a head in November over her refusal to release her employment contract, thwarting her performance review. In her final hours as chair in December, Ms. Rutka sent an e-mail to trustees saying she had failed to obtain a copy of the contract, despite repeated attempts.
Ms. Quan did, however, co-operate with Ms. Rutka's successor, Shaun Chen, and gave the new chair her contract in December. When asked why, Ms. Quan told The Globe the request for the contract "has a process to follow" but did not elaborate.
Trustees had their first opportunity at a meeting that month to see the contract, which Mr. Bolton, the former chair, unilaterally negotiated and approved and which runs afoul of the province's wage-freeze legislation, as her salary of $289,000 is $17,000 higher than that of her predecessor.
The governance problems are far from new. A forensic audit done by Ernst & Young LLP at the request of Ms. Sandals concluded in a December, 2013, report that the board's response to earlier governance reports dating back to 2010 has not been "sufficiently effective" to adequately balance day-to-day management and the role of trustees.
Ms. Sandals signalled on Friday that she won't let the latest report into the school board gather dust. "There continue to be ongoing operational and governance issues which demand greater attention," spokeswoman Nilani Logeswaran said in an e-mail. "The Minister intends to work closely with the board to restore public confidence in the TDSB."
* * * * *
A HISTORY OF GOVERNANCE PROBLEMS AT THE TDSB
October, 2012: The Ontario government freezes the TDSB's funding for new school buildings after cost overruns on a number of projects. Laurel Broten, education minister at the time, threatens to appoint a supervisor to take control of the board.
December, 2012: The government sends in a special assistance team to the TDSB to help fix its operations.
January, 2013: Education director Chris Spence resigns amid plagiarism allegations going back nearly 20 years. Then-deputy director Donna Quan is named acting director of education.
June, 2013: The Ontario government says it will investigate "financial management practices" of the TDSB after concerns were raised by Ms. Quan and Elizabeth Moyer, chair of the board's audit committee.
July, 2013: Education Minister Liz Sandals lifts the funding freeze at the TDSB after the special assistance team says the board made "significant progress" with its budget. The team also notes several governance problems, including instances of trustees involved in day-to-day operations, from procuring goods and services to staffing decisions.
October, 2013: Ms. Quan is officially named director of education.
December, 2013: The Ontario government releases the Ernst & Young forensic audit into the TDSB, which describes a culture of "fear" and calls on the board to bolster its governance to better balance day-to-day management with the role of trustees.
March, 2014: Police officers are stationed outside the TDSB boardroom to keep trustees from threatening staff and each other. Chris Bolton, chair at the time, requests a police presence after Ms. Quan and her three deputies tell him staff feel intimidated and threatened by some trustees.
June, 2014: Mr. Bolton resigns, five months before his term expires. His departure follows a Globe and Mail investigation revealing that he directed funds intended for a Toronto elementary school where he was principal to his own charity, according to confidential internal reviews. Trustees defeat a motion to publicly address the matter.
June, 2014: Trustees vote to delay a partnership with the Confucius Institute, which is subsidized and controlled by the government of China. They are inundated with e-mails and phone calls from concerned parents and struggle to learn details about a deal unilaterally negotiated by Mr. Bolton.
October, 2014: The TDSB officially severs its ties to the Confucius Institute.
November, 2014: Mari Rutka, chair at the time, calls on the province to intervene with the board's director, alleging Ms. Quan is blocking trustees on a number of fronts, including her refusal to release her employment contract.
Nov. 25, 2014: The government appoints education consultant Margaret Wilson to examine operational issues at the TDSB.
December, 2014: Ms. Quan hands over her employment contract to Shaun Chen, Ms. Rutka's successor as chair. Trustees see the contract for the first time at a meeting that month, revealing that Ms. Quan's salary of $289,000 violates the province's wage-freeze legislation.