Vancouver School Board releases redacted report on bullying, toxic workplace

Vancouver School Board releases bullying report

VANCOUVER — A redacted report released by the Vancouver School Board singles out members of the left-leaning Vision Vancouver party in an external investigation that blames trustees for creating a toxic work environment in which staff were bullied and harassed.

The “tipping point” was a September meeting during which Vision’s Patti Bacchus, a trustee at the time, put forward a motion asking the Vancouver mayor to review enrolment projections that had been prepared by board staff, says the report, which was written by lawyer Roslyn Goldner.

“I do not find the explanations provided by Vision trustees related to the motions proposed at the Sept. 26 meeting credible,” Goldner wrote in the 44-page document, which was released Tuesday in response to a freedom-of-information request.

“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.”

The report says trustees relentlessly and aggressively questioned staff, who feared for their job security. This conduct escalated during 2016 amid a “highly politicized” budget and school closure plan, which proposed shutting down 11 schools, the report adds.

At the height of the turmoil last October, the board’s senior management team took indefinite leaves of absence following reports of bullying in the workplace — a move that stalled discussions around school closures.

Goldner was tasked with investigating allegations of bullying and harassment, shortly before Education Minister Mike Bernier fired all nine trustees for failing to pass a balanced budget.

In an interview, Bacchus described Goldner’s report as “politically motivated” and said no bullying occurred.

“The job of elected officials is to ensure the questions get asked, to find the right way forward on very difficult decisions,” she said. “I certainly make no apologies for our decision to suspend school closures. That was the right decision.”

Trustees were under tremendous pressure from government and management to proceed with school closures, and board members were trying to find a way to accommodate both the needs of the community and of the district, Bacchus said.

“That’s the work we were doing and if it made people uncomfortable, that is unfortunate,” she added. “But we did it respectfully. We did it courteously.”

Bacchus also said she “categorically” disagrees that recommending city staff review school board numbers amounted to questioning their competence.

“I think that’s due diligence and entirely appropriate (and) in no way impugning their professional abilities,” she said. “That’s just saying let’s make sure we have the same numbers as the city.”

The four former Vision Vancouver trustees, which includes ex-chairman Mike Lombardi, released a statement last week in which they said they treated all staff with respect and courtesy and did not participate in or witness workplace bullying or harassment.

Lombardi could not be reached for comment.

A two-page summary of the report was released last week, but Tuesday’s partially redacted document provides a clearer picture of tumult at the board.

“The fact that the board is a political arena does not justify displays of disrespectful conduct,” the report says. “Even in the context of a partisan board, healthy disagreement and robust debate need not be accompanied by rude, dismissive or belittling behaviour”

While much of her findings singled out Vision Vancouver, Goldner said all trustees, including those who did not engage in disrespectful or rude activity, contributed to the creation of a negative environment because they tolerated inappropriate behaviour.

“They allowed ambient bullying to negatively affect the workplace,” the report says.

Christopher Richardson, a former trustee with the centre-right Non-Partisan Association, said in response to the Goldner’s findings that by allowing the harassment to occur, he bears some responsibility for the culture that developed between staff and the board.

“This is a black mark on us all, and it’s a black mark on the Vancouver School Board,” he said. “I’m hoping that this may be that wake-up call.”

Janet Fraser, the only Green party member on the former board, issued a release saying as a newly elected trustee she stepped into a pre-existing board dynamic that she found overly partisan and challenging.

“With hindsight I realize 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,” she said. 

Dianne Turner, a former school district superintendent in nearby Delta, was appointed as the Vancouver School Board’s official trustee.

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter

Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

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