March 9/20: Public Censure of Trustee Part III

This synopsis of the 35 page report by the investigating lawyer Roslyn Goldner was provided for SD61 Trustees on April 13, 2019.

 It’s full of loaded words, general conclusions drawn from one supposed incident, and many more examples of writing that is about as far from objective as you can get, very similar to the report Goldner wrote in Spring of 2017 after her “investigation” of the Vancouver School Board.     

Patti Bacchus, former VSB Chair, March 2017, Vancouver Observer on the 2017 report:

…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.” They’re right.

… 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.

…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.”

…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,” [School Act, Div 2.1] 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.

 

 

If the report for SD61 below  were an assignment for objective reporting, I’d send it back to the author with a note: “See me – needs work”.

 

Loaded language (also known as loaded terms, emotive language, high-inference language and language-persuasive techniques) is rhetoric used to influence an audience by using words and phrases with strong connotations associated with them in order to invoke an emotional response and/or exploit stereotypes.

 

Here we go, with all of that.  

GREATER VICTORIA SCHOOL DISTRICT #61 CONFIDENTIAL INVESTIGATION

On March 5, 2019 Superintendent Shelley Green received a Summary of Personnel report from [since retired]  Chair of the Personnel Committee of the Victoria Principals and Vice-Principals’ Association (“VPVPA”). …

The summary outlined a number of concerns regarding the behaviour of school trustees brought to the attention of VPVPA by “administrators” in the District. To maintain confidentiality [ the SD61 PVPA HR Chair] did not identify specific trustees or the District employees who raised these concerns.

In summary the administrators reported, amongst other things, that trustees have openly criticized them at Board meetings, accused them of not being transparent and have derailed presentations and conversations. They also reported that trustees engaged in disparaging behaviour toward them in public meetings. The administrators claim that the treatment to which they are subjected has caused significant stress and anxiety and has interfered with the day to day work of the District.

The administrators report that since the trustee election in November 2018 the atmosphere in the workplace has deteriorated. Individuals fear for their work and their futures.

In response to the concerns brought forward Superintendent Green engaged me to conduct a confidential investigation. I asked to interview any District employees who were willing to speak to me about the work environment and in particular about the working relationship between the District and the Board. I conducted 17 interviews at the District offices between April 2 and 5, 2019.

Synopsis

I am reporting the information gathered in those interviews in the aggregate in what I believe is sufficient detail for you to respond to the concerns raised when I meet with you individually at the District offices next week. These notes reflect the comments made by witnesses and not my findings with respect to the information provided. I will not make any findings of fact until I have considered all of the evidence, including trustee responses. My findings of fact will be set out in the report submitted to the Superintendent.

The interviews revealed that the complaints relate not only to trustee behaviour toward District employees but also trustee behaviour toward other trustees. Each of the District employees interviewed reported that this combination of behaviours has created a “culture of fear” and a toxic work environment that is having a negative impact on individuals and on the workplace.

The witnesses also expressed concern about a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities and report that failures to act consistent with those roles has contributed in a significant way to the current negative and unproductive climate in the workplace.

Trustee Response

I do not expect individual trustees to respond to everything contained in the synopsis. The information is provided to provide context and specific examples of incidents which according to the witnesses have led to the creation of a work environment that is not positive, creates anxiety, diminishes satisfaction in the work and is causing some individuals to question whether they wish to continue working in this environment.

You are invited to provide me with your perspective of the role of the Board, the trustees and the District staff. This is not an investigation into governance of the Board but, to the extent that departures by the Board and individual trustees from the norms of governance have contributed to the creation of the negative work environment described by the witnesses, those behaviours are within the jurisdiction of this investigation.

You are also invited to provide me with your views on the work environment and to respond to those described below.

Trustee Behaviours Toward Other Trustees

Witnesses describe trustee behaviour toward each other in committee and Board meetings as rude and disrespectful. The describe the following behaviours:

  • Eye-rolling, head shaking, sighing loudly and muttering when someone with whom they disagree is speaking
  • Pushing one’s chair back from the table and turning away from the speaker
  • Turning toward the person beside at the table and engaging in conversations while someone else is speaking
  • Sending twitter messages during meetings; sending documents out to the public
  • Rudely cutting off speakers stopping them with a dismissive hand gesture (holding up a hand palm outward to stop a speaker)
  • Trustee behaviour toward one another is described as hostile, sarcastic, challenging and confrontational
  • Challenging the chair on procedural matters in way that is designed to embarrass in public and to show incompetence
  • Certain trustees are seen as “grandstanding” and jockeying for position rather than acting as a team member
  • Trustees have public arguments over Robert’s rules and “call each other out” in ways that are not respectful.

Trustee behaviour is described as “awful” and the meetings like “dysfunctional family dinners”. The expectation is that trustees should engage with one another in a more respectful manner and demonstrate teamwork.

Trustee Behaviours Toward District Staff

Many of the behaviours described above are also directed toward District staff who present at meetings. Witnesses describe Board and trustee behaviours toward District staff as rude and disrespectful and include:

  • Public criticism of the work of District staff
  • Failure to recognize skills and experience
  • Unprecedented number of requests for information, reports etc.
  • Directly approaching staff for information or to direct them to do work for the trustee rather than going through appropriate channels, i.e. Superintendent
  • Questioning of staff is described as hostile and challenging with apparent goal of “catching them out” or embarrassing them rather than seeking meaningful information
  • Trustees demonstrate a lack of respect for staff’s time, demanding rather than requesting information or documents

District employees report that they dread having to present reports to the Board as they know they will be subject to critical and persistent questioning, questioning that is often not relevant or responsive to the presentation. One witness commented that the questions asked of staff suggest that staff had hadn’t delved not a subject in sufficient depth, or that they weren’t objective and had a particular view point or desire to promote.

Witnesses report that some trustees openly criticize the direction of a report even though the direction comes from the Board (at times the previous Board) and District staff do not set direction; they supply content. Content is often criticized but without any foundation or evidentiary basis for the criticism when the trustee simply does not agree or like the content. There is no recognition of staff expertise. Questions are asked in an “attacking tone” and are aggressive and blaming. Trustees feel entitled to interrupt staff to the “point of rudeness”.

The witnesses state that they respect the Board’s prerogative to ask questions but complain that the tone, the repetition of questions that have been answered and the insistence on asking questions in a public forum when staff did not have an opportunity to prepare or fully consider the issues raised changes the exercise from productive questioning on material presented to a fractious Q&A or interrogation that is inappropriate in a public forum. Witnesses report that some trustees seem to delight in pointing out errors in spelling or grammar in staff reports [DM: Ok- I did this once. Point taken; never again] or  power point presentations and do this in front of the gallery even though this could have been done privately as the material is provided in advance to the Board.

Many witnesses report that they now dread presenting to the Board and some even dread attending meetings when their colleagues are presenting. The level of anxiety has become so high that some staff attend meetings to show support for their co-workers and it is routine for staff to “check-in” with presenters to ensure they are “okay” after appearing before the Board. Staff report spending an inordinate amount of time on presentations because they anticipate they will be “grilled” and subject to disparaging comments and are fearful of being embarrassed and humiliated in public. Many staff report that they avoid meetings they used to attend.

Some senior staff report feeling “protective” of their team members and that they try to minimize their contact with the Board. Team members report that they feel very supported by their supervisors and by senior leadership but are concerned that this is taking a great toll on these individuals. It is difficult for them to see their colleagues subjected to public humiliation and disrespectful behaviours.

Witnesses also report that they feel discouraged when, after spending time preparing reports, they are either unable to finish their presentation due to repetitive and persistent questioning or they are made to feel incompetent and unprepared by Board criticism or a barrage of questions about details that are not relevant to the report. The questions “get into the weeds” seeking details that cannot be answered in that setting. They report being left with the feeling that “nothing they do is good enough” or appreciated even though they are doing the work of the Board and meeting the unusually high number of Board requests.

Witnesses report that they have offered to meet with trustees before public meetings to answer any questions they may have or to address any concerns with the material that will be presented. [I have been asked to send in my questions before the meeting in email. Questions deserve a public forum.] Trustees have refused to engage in these discussions preferring instead to air their criticisms and grievances [Questions are “criticisms and grievances”? ] in the public forum. Trustees have also been asked to hold questions until the end of a presentation to allow the staff to get through the points they need to cover but they refuse to comply with these requests. [Some presenters have not held the boundary and allowed /allow  questions to creep in from some, while others are holding questions to the end.] Staff feel they are repeatedly being “thrown under the bus” by the Board. They do not feel supported or respected.

Meeting chairs fail to maintain control of meetings particularly with respect to the participation of the public or invited presenters. [This is a tremendously general statement.] Some trustees “pack the gallery” [Could that be the same as alerting members of the public / stakeholder groups as to t when a topic of interest will be discussed? One might think that is a responsibility of an elected official] and then invite comments from the gallery critical of the District staff. [Chairs of Standing Committees invite comments from the public and have no idea what will be said.] Board members have clapped when a speaker has made remarks critical of the District and the work of the employees. [When? ] This behaviour has now stopped [I raised this point years ago; clapping for public presenters stopped, but then drifted back in. Video will show that I have not clapped following any presentation, apart from those made by schools, for years.] but is raised as indicative of the Board’s lack of support for staff.

Because meetings are disruptive and are not well controlled [video of Board meetings going some time back is available but video of Standing Committees only started after a motion carried May 27, 2019.]

[March 20 /20 update: I now know a surreptitious audio record was made of that meeting by a former member of the SD61 senior administration . Trustees were not told. Not all of them, anyway.  You could try to get hold of that.]

Staff are often required to be in meetings until 10:00 or 10:30 at night after putting in a full day. [City and Municipal councils sometimes end meetings at 1 am. Some Trustees work a full day in child care at home our outside the home before these meetings.]. The meetings often generate motions that are not well thought out or researched and impose more workload on District staff. For example one motion involved putting in free machines for feminine hygiene supplies without any questioning or research about what was currently being done in the schools. [Motions can be and sometimes are withdrawn if information at the meeting makes the motion unnecessary. The agenda setting committees sometimes contact trustees re relevance of a motion.]

District staff report feeling unsupported and undermined by the Board. The staff “work for the Board” to implement the Board’s strategic plan. They feel that their work is criticized and dismissed. Trustees who are bound by decisions of the Board make public statements to parents and the community contrary to the decisions of the Board and frequently blame staff when parents or other members of the community complain about decisions made or processes undertaken. They feel this challenges their integrity as people and as professionals.

The witnesses recounted the events of the following meetings as illustrative of the behaviours they have encountered that have led to their experience of the workplace as a toxic environment.

December 3, 2018 Education Policy meeting

District staff made a presentation that was an update on an ongoing project. The presenter was chastised for not including a chart in the presentation by one trustee because the trustee could not understand the power point without the chart. The trustee used belittling tone [subjective and manipulative term ] and said, “Would have been helpful if there were a chart”. The lack of a chart was mentioned several times; the trustee “wouldn’t let it go”. Members of the public and other stakeholder were present at the meeting.

January 7, 2019 Education Policy meeting

District staff presenting an update were subject to persistent questioning that was distracting and interrupted the flow of the report. The Board Chair, who was not chairing the meeting, tried to stop the excessive questioning stating, “This is a report. Please let them give their report”. [The Board Chair actually shouted from the table “What is this? An inquisition?”]

Several witnesses attended this meeting and reported that a presentation by the Learning Support team was subject to extensive and persistent questioning. The team presenters were unable to get through their 20-minute report and after one and a half hours [doubtful] of critical and persistent, largely irrelevant questioning, the Chair of the Board intervened noting that “this feels like an interrogation”. [After the meeting, several parents told me they were pleased I had asked questions of the reporter as they found the report difficult to understand, and my questions were helpful.]

February Meeting at Victor School re Boundary Review

The Board had decided to undertake a boundary review and to adopt a full consultation process with parents. Six trustees attended a meeting where the plan was to be presented to parents. [Trustees were not made aware of this meeting and found out about it at the last minute. Victor School students are often medically fragile and developmentally challenged, easily over stimulated, living with rare syndromes, and life-threatening conditions – if reality overrides ideology, not candidates for full inclusion in a regular classroom.] Many of the parents objected to the plan for the school. Several trustees spoke at the meeting and made promises to get the school removed from the process. Only one trustee commented that this was a Board process and that the staff were doing the work of the Board. Another trustee did intervene to advise that they could not promise an outcome without a Board vote.

Other trustees encouraged the parents in their opposition to the recommendations of the District staff. One trustee advised parents to look up recent court cases involving Hydro BC [?] and Surrey School District to assist them in their challenge to the recommendation. Trustees stated that “mistakes were made” and apologized for the way the situation was handled.

The Board ultimately withdrew the school from the process. Witnesses reported feeling undermined and not supported by the Board. [Parents of children at the school reported feeling great relief.]

[See March 8, 2019. Inclusion BC apologized to Victor School parents and withdrew the letter in the post after criticism by former Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel Lafond.]

February Education Policy meeting

Inclusion was on the agenda and some parents from Victor school were present. They were angry and the meeting was heated. The Chair did not control the meeting. [What does “control” look like? Not allowing parents to express frustration? Quickly shutting down anything contentious?] One parent verbally attacked the Deputy Superintendent accusing her of lying and stating that she [the parent] did not trust her anymore. The Superintendent had to intervene to reinforce that respectful conduct was expected. The Chair’s responses were not supportive of the District staff. [Recording of Standing Committees only started after a motion that carried May 27, 2019.]

Failure To Fulfill Role of Board and Trustees

Witnesses also complain that trustees either do not seem to understand their role in the system or have deliberately rejected that role. The Board is described as “dysfunctional” because it does not operate “as a team” but rather as individuals who have their own agendas. [An elected body comprised of individuals with varying points of view, knowledge, life experience and opinions is not a ”team” and is not supposed to be one. Does anyone expect a City Council to be a “team”? The electorate elects representatives who are guaranteed to have differing points of view. That’s pretty much the idea, in a democracy.] Witnesses claim that the trustees are interfering in the operation of the District rather than acting as overseers and policy makers. They are “playing with the trains”. [!]

Some trustees have stated that they do not support the District initiatives with respect to inclusiveness notwithstanding that the initiatives are based on the previous Board’s strategic plan. Some trustees have stated that they do not support the plan. [Like closing  district low incidence and behaviour support programs with no notice to parents and no consultation with parents? Being less than transparent about what the change in ‘program’ funding to school based funding from District funding implies for future viability of the program? When I voted to “support inclusion” I did not vote for those actions. Inclusion is a choice that includes the opinion of the student, or should be, and extreme behaviors are one way of communicating. We’ve had many reports from parents and from line workers about that. If trustees aren’t informed about significant operational decisions in a clear way that leaves no room for later surprises, what is the use of participating in developing a strategic plan? General statements leave room for justifying many operational decisions that may manifest in unexpected ways.] Witnesses complain that they do not seem to understand that it remains a Board plan until it is changed by a vote of the Board. It cannot be changed by individual trustees who do not support the plan. Staff describe inappropriate conduct by individual trustees such as approaching District directors rather than senior leadership seeking to change implementation decisions related to the Strategic Plan.

One trustee interfered in a school transfer working independently of the District staff and without consultation. This by-passed the normal processes in place and undermined the District staff.

Witnesses report that some trustees have tried to distance themselves from decisions of the former Board by being critical of the District reports on the implementation of those decisions or by actively addressing the issues with parents and other stakeholders. [Are elected officials not supposed to discuss issues with stakeholders who elected them?] There does not seem to be an awareness or, or respect for, the fact that decisions are made by the Board not individual trustees, and can only be made by the Board or that the direction of the Board can only be changed by the Board.

Witnesses report that processes [which processes?] are not respected. They complain of situations in which the Board has agreed to a process and then when faced with criticism from the public has acted outside of the process or has made a decision before the process has been completed. This happened with the Arbutus program, late entry French immersion and with the boundary re- organization. Witnesses complain that these actions not only create more work and unfairness in the system but they undermine the decisions of the Board and the work in which the District staff are engaged.

Some trustees have encouraged parents to deal with them directly rather than with District staff, promising them that they are going to “fix their problem” and voicing their agreement with the parents’ criticisms of the decisions of the Board and the work of the District employees.

Some trustees have made inappropriate demands for information about operational matters or about individual [have never] or groups of students. [Privacy laws protect students.]

Several witnesses expressed concerns that Board will cause damage due to the failure to comply with the norms [Whose norms? ]  around roles and responsibilities. They feel that these are not clearly understood by some and that some trustees seem to not want to understand.

Witnesses cite reversals with late French Immersion, the Arbutus program and Victor school as examples of trustees inappropriately interfering with process and inappropriately inserting themselves into the work of the District. [“Inappropriately” listening to parents?] These reversals call into question the competency of District employees who now feel that their reputations as professionals are at risk.

Although training has been set up for trustees many [How many did not participate? What was the topic of the “training”?] did not participate. This has sent a message to the staff that the Board is not interested in working productively or collegially with them. [This statement is a huge leap of logic, an unfounded conclusion typical of this report.] The conduct of the Board is described as creating a situation of “us and them” that is poisoning the work environment. [A Board is not staff, so yes, there is “us” and “them”. It’s supposed to be like that.]

Submitted by RGoldner,
April 13, 2019

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