A report has a lifted the veil on the nasty work environment that used to prevail at the Vancouver school board (VSB).
The redacted version of the devastating paper written by lawyer Roslyn Goldner portrays dysfunction in the previous board, whose members were rude and uncivil toward each other.
The report was released Tuesday (March 7) by the school district now led by Diane Turner, who was appointed sole trustee by the province after the education ministry fired members of the board last year.
The document also describes how staff members were bullied, harassed, and shamed by trustees at the time amid a culture of fear in the workplace.
“Witnesses described the dysfunction displayed at Board meetings as affecting the conduct of the committee meetings,” the reported stated. “Many witnesses stated that the disrespectful conduct of the Board emboldened some stakeholder participants, particularly those representing the various trade unions, to be disrespectful and verbally abusive toward staff in committee meetings.”
“Many witnesses described a ‘culture of fear’ in which staff felt vulnerable and at risk of personal attack and ridicule,” the report continued.
Moreover, the report details the role played by trustees belonging to Vision Vancouver, whose actions undermined the work of staff relating to potential closure of schools.
According to Goldner, who was retained by the district to look into allegations of bullying and harassment, the “tipping point” was the September 26, 2016 public meeting, when staff recommendations for school closures were taken up.
“I find the allegations that the Vision Trustees ‘threw the staff under the bus’ an apt descriptor of the Trustees' conduct,” Goldner wrote. “I accept the evidence that the Trustees' public attack of the work of the senior staff undermined the staff and publically embarrassed and humiliated.”
Goldner also stated that she found that “individual Trustees acted contrary to the VSB Code of Ethics and engaged in conduct that constituted bullying and harassment”.
“I find that the actions of the Vision Trustees with respect to the Closure Report created a toxic work environment in which it was no longer tenable for members of the Senior Management Team to continue to try to meet their employment obligations,” she reported.
At the September 26, 2016 meeting, then Vision Vancouver trustee Patti Bacchus tabled two motions that devalued the work of staff, according to the report.
The report also noted that then Vision Vancouver school board chair Mike Lombardi failed to maintain order at that meeting, exposing staff to ridicule from a hostile audience.
The report cited witnesses saying Bacchus then asked questions related to budget expenditures.
“Witnesses reported that Trustee Bacchus paused after her questions as the audience laughed at the discomfort of the Superintendent. There was no intervention from any trustees and no attempt to restore order by trustee Lombardi in his capacity as chair,” according to the Goldner report.
The report noted that Vision trustees “denied that their actions were anything more than the appropriate exercise of the due diligence required of them to fulfill their roles as Trustees”.
However, Goldner noted: “The justification provided by the Vision Trustees for their actions on September 26th does not withstand scrutiny.”
According to Goldner, “It is not credible that they were merely meeting their obligations as Trustees and exercising due diligence. The evidence supports the claims that their interest was in pursuing a political agenda rather than supporting the prior decision of the Board and the recommendations of the senior staff.”
Goldner also commented on the conduct of other former trustees that do not belong to Vision during their time at the district.
“Other Trustees expressed regret that they did not do more to intervene and to support staff,” Goldner reported.
The situation had become so bad that employees “dreaded their contact with the Board and with certain of the Trustees”.
Responding to the release of the Goldner report, Lombardi, Bacchus, and their two former Vision school board colleagues Joy Alexander and Allan Wong, issued a March 7 statement defending their actions.
“When it comes to children’s education and the millions of taxpayer dollars we are entrusted with, our trustees do ask tough questions of the senior managers at the VSB,” according to their statement.
“The most damning aspects of the Goldner report seem to be trustees asking difficult questions of senior staff at public meetings, ‘audible sighs’, elected officials communicating with constituents by ‘tweeting during meetings’, and ‘Board meetings described as extremely unpleasant’,” the statement continued.
“We couldn’t agree more: meetings about closing neighbourhood schools are ‘unpleasant’,” the former Vision trustees stated. “The tensions at the VSB were a result of chronic underfunding by this provincial government, pressuring the district to sell off lands and assets to balance the budget – at the expense of classroom learning.”
Former Green Party of Vancouver school trustee Janet Fraser was a member of the board fired by the province in October last year.
In a statement about the report prepared by Goldner, Fraser said that as first-time trustee, she found a “board dynamic’ that was “overly partisan and very challenging to work in”.
“I did not fully appreciate the impact that inappropriate behaviour by other trustees was having on VSB staff …,” Fraser said in a statement on March 7.
“The report noted specific incidents where certain trustees seemed inclined to follow a political agenda rather than seek information on which to base their decisions and engage in thoughtful discussion to assist their decision making,” Fraser said. “With hindsight I realise I could have spoken up, especially in public meetings, to attempt to curb trustees' disrespectful behaviour and to try to ensure a safe and respectful workplace for all VSB staff.”