A report released by the Vancouver School Board (VSB) last week concluded VSB trustees had “created a toxic work environment” and some engaged in “bullying and personal harassment” of the VSB’s most senior employees to the point several of them went on leaves on absence.
The report was written by Roslyn Goldner who was hired by the VSB in October to investigate allegations of a toxic workplace at the VSB. I wrote about that process in December and questioned whether it was a legitimate investigation or a political smear.
The offending behavior, according to the redacted copy of Goldner’s report posted by the VSB, included sighing, tweeting, eye rolling, pausing while speaking, asking questions, desk thumping, bickering, moving motions and yelling.
That sounds a lot like question period in the B.C. legislature, but this allegedly took place in a school gym on September 26, 2016.
The 44-page report includes extensive anonymous “witness” testimony and redacts almost all names — except mine and that of former board chair Mike Lombardi. The findings are based on the writer’s opinion that trustees should support staff recommendations without “pursuing political agendas.”
“Everything is politics”
In response to the allegations, I plead guilty to tweeting, moving motions and asking lots of hard questions, and it’s possible I paused or sighed during our many lengthy meetings last fall.
I am truly sorry if that distressed several senior managers to the degree they needed to take leaves of absence — in some cases for three months or more. I like and respect the VSB staff team and I always made a point of thanking them for their work and noting how professional it was.
I feel awful that so many team members were affected to that extent.
I also plead guilty — proudly — to having a “political agenda” that put students and families first. This agenda was the platform I was elected on, three times.
My Vision Vancouver trustee colleagues — Lombardi, Joy Alexander and Allan Wong — and I did the work we were elected to do. That job wasn’t to rubber stamp staff recommendations to close schools or cut programs.
It was to represent Vancouver residents and ensure decisions made were in their best interests and right for students and their families. It wasn’t to do what the provincial government or senior bureaucrats wanted us to do.
It was to explore all options to provide the best opportunities possible for students.
Would I do anything differently after reading the report? Yes. I would have made a point of doing more to reassure staff that by responding to constituents’ questions and concerns we were not “impugning” the integrity or quality of their work.
I believed that was clear but according to the anonymous witnesses in this report, it was not. I regret that.
I do not, however, regret asking tough questions and ensuring the public’s questions and concerns were addressed. As an elected trustee, we were obliged to ask hard questions and bring motions forward we believed were in the best interests of the students and families we served.
Goldner’s investigation and report are disputed by the unions that represent VSB employees who issued a statement March 10 saying the report lacks integrity and appears to be politically motivated.
They say none of them were offered an opportunity to be interviewed. They added that the “Trustees’ job is to ask hard questions and to represent their constituents. Public education is a political undertaking and to suggest that it should be otherwise is deeply disturbing and naïve.”
Goldner also says “witnesses” reported a “tactic of persistent questioning” on earlier discussions about cutting the district’s band and strings program, adult education, staff’s request for several non-budgeted additional staffing positions for the PeopleSoft system, the operating budget and school closures.
She says trustees “actively advocated for positions and outcomes contrary to those publically supported by the board.”
That, dear reader, is the job of trustees.
Goldner repeatedly refers to findings in the government-commissioned 2016 special advisor reports by Peter Milburn and EY. Yet documents accessed through freedom of information requests show Ministry of Education senior staff provided edits to those “independent” reports.
Those findings question the role of school trustees as advocates vs. stewards and identify the VSB’s standing committee system as a governance problem that needs solving.
The report also dismisses the many students, parents and community members who attended several VSB public meetings about school closures as “partisan supporters” and accuses them of being “disruptive and disrespectful” to staff.
It accepts anonymous witness descriptions of the crowd as “pumped up and antagonistic toward staff even before the meeting began.”
Goldner quotes anonymous “witnesses” (presumably senior staff) saying my financial questions to the superintendent were “pointed and unfair” and says her unnamed witnesses called my respectful questions about a budget for school closures as “nasty.”
I call them doing the due diligence my job required.
She also gets a number of facts wrong. She claims “the primary motivation for school closures was budgetary.”
It was not – it was largely driven by the VSB’s long-range facility plan and government’s 95 percent capacity utilization requirement that was abruptly rescinded by education minister Mike Bernier days before the infamous September 26 meeting.
She claims “since 1995 no school board in this province has failed to pass a balanced budget.” Wrong.
She accepts staff claims Superintendent Scott Robinson didn’t call education minister Mike Bernier’s September 21 announcement rescinding the 95 per cent capacity requirement a “game changer.”
He did in a text message to me, which I offered to share with her — and still have.
Goldner says witnesses complained the interest of some trustees was to “pursue a political agenda” rather than support staff recommendations regarding closures and that by “advancing that political agenda the trustees undermined the senior staff and exposed them to humiliation and ridicule.”
This shows a startling naivety about the role of elected officials vs bureaucrats.
Goldner’s opinion that political agendas differ from district agendas — and that trustees should set “politics” aside and have a “district agenda" —is the most troubling aspect of her controversial report.
In a post titled “Advocacy and Trusteeship under siege,” long-time New Westminster school trustee Michael Ewen observes that the Milburn/EY and Goldner reports “seem to suggest school boards should not be advocating for public education and that school boards should be unquestioning in their acceptance of senior administration recommendations.”
I’ve heard variations of this theme many times since I was elected to the VSB. Yet political beliefs are an expression of values and shape priorities.
To say decisions about how public funds are allocated in a public-school system should not be “political” is breathtakingly naïve and ignorant. As a character in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain famously says: “The apolitical does not exist—everything is politics.”
The Goldner report bolsters the Milburn and EY arguments to change the VSB’s — and possibly all B.C. school boards’ — governance model.
That's a polite way of saying shifting more power to management and diminishing trustee, stakeholder and public oversight and input. Citing no one, Goldner writes “this [current] model impinges on the jurisdiction of the senior management team and its mandate to carry out the day-to-day operations of the district.”
Like the government-appointed “special advisors,” Goldner indicates a preference for closed-door committee meetings where “managers gather stakeholder input and report it to the board.” That’s right — no direct or public input to trustees — filter it all through managers. Yikes.
I suppose it’s not surprising an investigator hired by senior managers and reporting to government-appointed senior managers would reach this conclusion and critique elected trustees for doing their jobs and standing up for their constituents.
It’s unfortunate that so many were smeared along the way — members of the public who attended meetings, union representatives and we trustees — none more so than me.
Voters must be able to decide and vote for the kind of trustees they want representing them.
Candidates can state whether they plan to ask tough questions and represent constituents or that they will approve staff recommendations with only minimal questions. In a democracy voters are supposed to decide this.
Bernier needs to call a Vancouver by-election and let voters choose.