Patti Bacchus: How to tame your school trustee

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      Imagine you’re a school superintendent working for a board of unruly school trustees. They often disagree with each other and grill your senior team members over management reports and recommendations. Your staff complain about how annoying, and even intimidating, it is to deal with the trustees’ persistent questions.

      It’s worse during public meetings, when parents challenge staff reports and demand answers to valid questions, and trustees actually listen to the parents, instead of telling them to be polite.

      Life, or at least work, would be so much easier with a compliant board of passive trustees, who just thanked you and your staff for your hard work and rubber-stamped your proposals.

      Well there’s an effective way to bring those pesky, duly-elected officials to heel and get them to stop asking the kind of questions the public wants them to ask. It also a great way to deflect attention from any flawed work senior managers do and minimize parent and public influence on board decisions.

      Here’s how you can shut those darned elected trustees up

      All you need to do is find someone—or, better still, a group of people—to accuse the trustees of bullying or harassing senior staff (even if those senior staff don’t make a complaint). The beautiful thing is that they won’t have to go on the public record, unlike if a teacher has a complaint about an administrator.

      Seemingly disgruntled senior managers can be “anonymous” witnesses and say whatever they want without being held accountable. I’m sure there are teachers who wish they could do the same.

      Then you hire a consultant to investigate the complaint by interviewing witnesses and writing a report finding that there was, indeed, bullying, despite the fact that most people would not describe the trustees’ behavior as anything resembling actual bullying. Heck, that doesn’t even matter—that’s the beauty of it!

      Perhaps you don't find any neutral witnesses who were present when the alleged bullying occurred. Say, for example, employee-group representatives who were present at all the meetings where the alleged trustee misconduct occurred.

      It’s a brilliant plan, because you can do it all in secret.

      You can use your district’s budget to pay the investigator money that could have been used to pay for an additional education assistant for a student who needs one.

      After all, what’s more important than the feelings of the highest-paid school-district employees?

      Guess what? It really happened

      So maybe you’ll get a report that finds, why, yes, senior managers were bullied and harassed by trustees who asked too many questions in public meetings or brought “unresearched” motions to the table about such outrageous proposals as providing free menstrual products in schools or didn’t intervene quickly enough when a parent gave a senior staff member a dressing down in a public meeting.

      The report will cite such atrocities as trustee eye-rolling, the way they moved their chairs, sighing, and the brutal crime of tweeting during meetings, and how that all contributed to a “culture of fear”.

      The report will go well beyond the scope of a workplace investigation to weigh in on whether or not trustees who ask a lot of questions, or consult extensively with the public and parents, are going outside the “scope” of their role and bringing personal agendas to the board table instead of being “team” players.

      The beauty of such an investigation is that you send a powerful chill to your board, and possibly others, because next to being a pedophile, being labelled a “bully” is one of the worst things that can happen to officials in our pink-shirt-celebrating public schools.

      Think I’m making this up? Something like this happened in the Greater Victoria School District last year, including an investigation and a report the board doesn’t want you to see.

      Bully chill extends beyond trustees

      I was a trustee on the Vancouver School Board (VSB) for eight years and chaired it for six. I heard from a lot of distraught, upset, or angry parents over those years. Some weren’t very polite. Some conversations were downright unpleasant. But I never felt bullied.

      I tried to listen respectfully and accept that sometimes parents are exhausted and worried about their kids, especially when their children have special needs and are struggling in the school systems.

      Parents don’t have to behave professionally, but school district officials do. Yet I’ve had parents complain to me about district officials telling them they’re being unprofessional in their communications with the district. Unless someone is being threatening or abusive, that’s a load of nonsense.

      Parents have every right to be upset at times and people working in school-district administration are expected to be able to understand that and deal with it. If you can’t handle it, you don’t belong in management.

      When senior managers appropriate “bullying” for their own interests

      In late 2018, the Greater Victoria School Board was considering changes to school catchment boundaries and the future of a school called Victor, which houses specialized programs for students with special needs, including students with complex medical conditions or behaviour issues. Victor parents were blindsided by a management proposal to turn Victor into a regular school and move their kids elsewhere.

      Not surprisingly, there were some heated discussions at school board meetings. Panicked Victor parents expressed frustration at the proposal and demanded answers. This, apparently, rattled some of the district’s most senior managers who were presenting the proposals at the meetings.

      Some trustees heard those concerns and asked questions about the plan as well. Some, apparently, asked a lot of questions. That’s the job of being a trustee. You need to fully understand the potential effects of any decision you make before you cast your vote. Ultimately, the trustees voted to keep the school operating as it was, contrary to what management had proposed. That, apparently, upset staff who wanted things to go their way and felt undermined by the board.

      Other things were going on around this time, including difficult discussions about how the district was supporting students with special needs, and whether kids were being sent home and excluded from school due to a lack of support.

      Now, bullying is a serious issue. Bullying is an ongoing and deliberate behaviour pattern, abusing power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical, and/or social behavior. Bullying intends to cause physical, social, and/or psychological harm. What happened at those Victoria school board meetings may have been stressful or uncomfortable, but it wasn’t bullying.

      It’s important to protect vulnerable students and employees from bullying. To appropriate the term and workplace rules around It to protect senior managers from criticism or hard questions—when their job descriptions note they must be able to work in a politicized, public environment—is not only inappropriate but disgraceful and pathetic.

      A hinky process?

      From what I can gather (it’s been tricky to gather anything since the Greater Victoria School Board refuses to discuss or release the report, although I have seen it), no one actually complained they were being harassed or bullied.

      Rather, the superintendent advised the board in March 2019 that she had received a letter from the Victoria Principals and Vice-Principals’ Association outlining a number of concern about trustees’ behaviour. 

      The complaints included trustees criticizing staff at board meeting, trustees accusing staff of not being transparent, asking too many questions about staff presentations, having side conversations during meetings, sighing, eye-rolling, and tweeting. All of this, apparently, created a “toxic culture of fear”.

      They also complained that trustees were “grandstanding and jockeying for position, rather than acting as team members".

      I don’t know if these folks have ever attended a city council meeting or sat in during debate in the legislature or, heaven forbid, question period. Like it or not, elected officials sometimes grandstand and jockey for position. That’s politics, folks, not bullying, annoying as it may be.

      Trustees are elected individually, and each is accountable to voters. They are not a team. They are part of a democratically elected board that is expected to debate and vote on issues.

      Many similarities to the VSB trustee bullying investigation

      It’s almost three years since the release at a news conference—called by a government-appointed trustee—of a strikingly similar report about the Vancouver School Board after government fired the VSB in October 2016 for refusing to pass a budget with extensive staffing and program cuts. I was a member of the fired board.

      In the lead-up to the VSB’s firing, there was growing public support for the trustees’ refusal to make further cuts on behalf of the provincial government. The audiences at packed budget meetings were giving the board standing ovations.

      Government had a problem. It wanted to fire us (provincial legislation requires boards to submit balanced budgets to the education minister each year), but we had the public on our side. The B.C. Liberals were staring down an election in the spring and couldn’t afford to blow precious political capital on firing us, but they wanted to fire us for defying them by not passing our budget.

      They desperately needed to turn public opinion against us, so they came up with a plan.

      On a Friday afternoon in October 2016, I got a call from Global News B.C. saying their legislative bureau chief, Keith Baldrey, had obtained a leaked memo alleging bullying by VSB trustees.

      Although Trustee Fraser Ballantyne had shouted at me to shut up during a public meeting once—which was merely obnoxious but didn’t fit the definition of bullying—I hadn’t seen trustee bullying and was mostly just curious about what I’d missed.

      It turns out no one at the VSB made a complaint. Instead, it came from the superintendent of the Richmond School Board, who was also the president of the superintendents’ association.

      A labour lawyer was hired to investigate the allegations, and witnesses and trustees were interviewed. (Witnesses names were not listed in the report.) This Vancouver report was strikingly similar to the one written about the Victoria board, although the report was used for different purposes, hence the news conference and making it public.

      In both cases, as far as I can tell, representatives from unionized employee groups were not interviewed, despite the fact that their executive members were present at most of the meetings noted in the reports where the investigator found that bullying occurred.

      Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association (GVTA) president Winona Waldron told me she is “dismayed” that such an investigation was done in her district without notifying her association.

      “I have not witnessed, nor had reports from any GVTA executive members who attend board meetings, any evidence of bullying or harassment of senior administrators,” Waldron told me by phone this week.

      In the VSB case, employee-group representatives asked to be interviewed and were denied that opportunity. When they report was released, VSB unions released a statement rejecting its findings and questioned the “independence and validity of the report”.

      That VSB investigation ended up smearing the trustees (although its broad brush also found employee-group representatives and members of the public behaved badly toward those poor senior executives) politically to give the provincial government cover as it headed into the election, while the Victoria version appears to have put trustees on notice that they needed to get in line and support management and stop asking so many darned questions.

      Why it matters

      At the very least, these investigations and reports are an appalling waste of money that should be spent on services to kids. They can cost more than a year’s salary for a special-education assistant, and we need a lot more of those.

      At worst, these investigations—which follow no rules and subject elected officials to anonymous accusations with little recourse—threaten to undermine the role and effectiveness of elected school boards and send a chill to those trustees who dare stand up for their constituents.

      That may not matter much to most, and many are hoping you won’t care. But it matters to me, and you should care.

      Parents whose kids aren’t getting the support they need in school often struggle to get help. They can be treated dreadfully, in some cases, by district officials.

      Trustees are the public interface and the ones who can say: “Hold on; let’s listen to the people who will be affected by this plan," or "Why is this student not getting the support she needs?”

      It’s not for hired investigators to define the role or scope of a school trustee. Some, like I did, run on a platform of leadership and advocacy and make a point of consulting with the public and advocating for the needs of the school district. Others take a more passive approach.

      It’s up to voters to decide which style they prefer.

      Democracy can be messy and, at times, quite unpleasant. Elected boards or councils comprise individuals and are not “teams”.

      It’s not for private investigators to determine who is acting like a good trustee and who is not, according to what senior managers whisper to them behind closed doors.

      Democracy dies in the darkness, and these reports and these secretive investigations are themselves toxic to local democratic processes.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.