18 June 2017

Opinion: VSB trustees accountable for toxic work environment

by Janet Fraser
Published on: June 15, 2017 Vancouver Sun

With the recent resignation of the Vancouver school board (VSB) superintendent I’ve been asked, “What was really going on at the VSB? I don’t know what to believe.”

Looking back at the trustees’ behaviour I witnessed and reading the two investigation reports, I believe VSB staff were bullied and harassed. As a newly elected trustee, I stepped into a pre-existing board dynamic that I found overly partisan and very challenging to work in, and didn’t fully realize the impact of trustees’ behaviour on staff.

Trustees have the right to ask hard questions, and should do so to better serve the district’s students, but along with that right is the responsibility to ensure that all employees have a safe and respectful work environment.

The WorkSafe B.C. report gives four specific examples of inappropriate conduct or comments that a trustee reasonably ought to have known would cause staff to be humiliated or intimidated, and were seen as bullying and harassment. The Goldner report accepts that relentless and aggressive questioning created a culture of fear in which staff dreaded their attendance at meetings, where they would be expected to report to the board, particularly if they knew that their recommendations wouldn’t be well-received.

Some former trustees have minimized the reports’ findings. However, I see that the actions of the board and trustees that I observed were accurately reported (with one exception, the WorkSafe B.C. report says a motion requesting revisions to the school-closure reports was passed when it was referred), I have no reason to doubt that investigators accurately reported witness statements, and the conclusions that VSB staff were bullied and harassed are clearly laid out.

Trustees are elected by the public and should be held publicly accountable for their actions. For both investigation reports I asked that any reference to me be made public and I’m mentioned once in each report as part of the sequence of events. I’m never named as a trustee with inappropriate behaviour.
However, as one of the board’s nine trustees I do accept a degree of responsibility for the overall VSB work environment and with hindsight I regret that I didn’t try to curb other trustees’ disrespectful behaviour, especially in public meetings. I continue to suggest that all former trustees agree to have their information made public in both investigation reports, so we can all be held accountable for our actions.

The probes found that the school-closure process was a key issue. In May 2016, trustees voted unanimously to direct staff to prepare a list of schools for possible closure. I voted to consider school closures not because I wanted to close schools, but because our district was facing a financial crisis; $22 million in cuts to balance the next year’s budget and an anticipated $15 million in cuts the year after. In September, trustees voted unanimously for 11 of the 12 listed schools to move forward to the closure-consultation process before the process was suspended in October.
The school-closure process was carried out at the direction of the board. There is no justification for a trustee to say to staff at the well-attended September board meeting, “See what you guys have created here. Look at this, you guys created all of this.”

Since the school-closure process was suspended, implementation of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling has required additional funding, as well as more classrooms in many schools, but the financial crisis remains — this year’s balanced budget has $2 million in cuts, and, over the next four years, a deficit of $27.5 million is anticipated.

It’s clear that a respectful relationship between an elected board and VSB staff must be established and this should be top of mind for anyone thinking of becoming a candidate in the next election. There are many difficult decisions ahead for our district, including balancing budgets, use of space in schools and achieving seismic upgrades, and Vancouver’s students need to have effective trustee leadership to best support their learning.

Janet Fraser was elected as a Green trustee in the 2014 Vancouver school board election and ran for MLA as the B.C. Green candidate in Vancouver-Langara.

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