Lawrie McFarlane: School trustees’ harassment must stop

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Last fall, the entire senior management team at the Vancouver School Board went on sick leave amid what they alleged was harassment by trustees. I believed at the time they should have stood up to the trustees, resigning if necessary. I still think that.


However, a recently published report on the events leading up to this crisis has to be read to be believed (You can find it at vsb.bc.ca — scroll down till you reach “Redacted report”). Here are just a handful of the numerous abusive behaviours recorded by the author, Vancouver lawyer Roslyn Goldner.


Witnesses told her that board dysfunction, bullying and harassment in the workplace were the norm and were tolerated, condoned and even rewarded.


“Some trustees engaged in yelling, name-calling and table-pounding while others responded to their colleagues with eye-rolling and audible sighs.”


Not all of the board members acted in this manner. While names are redacted, it is clear some were more destructive than others.


The breaking point came at a public meeting last September. A group of activists showed up, slammed the provincial Liberals and attacked the staff as government toadies. It’s likely their attendance was encouraged by one or more of the trustees.


Here is how witnesses described what happened: “partisan supporters were out in force and rallying against the government … several members of the public approached the table at which staff were seated and made angry and rude comments to them.”


“There was public jeering and disruptive comments as [the superintendent] spoke.” Not only did the chairman fail to rein in members of the crowd, but in the view of some, he egged them on.


Witnesses believed this amounted to a deliberate attempt to undermine management in the eyes of the public. Questions asked of the staff by one of the trustees “were not posed to elicit or clarify information but were challenging, humiliating and embarrassing for the superintendent and subjected the staff to ridicule from the public.”


Goldner concluded there was “a pattern of conduct … so persistent and pervasive that it can fairly be described as bullying and contributed to the creation of a toxic work environment.”


More troubling still, after the board was fired by the education minister (for refusing to present a balanced budget), one trustee continued to attend public meetings “and took still and video pictures of staff members.” Witnesses described this conduct as deliberate and intimidating.


What are we to make of such behaviour? Dealing with the last point first, I would have thought the videotaping incident bears some aspects of stalking.


In other circumstances, that would be an overheated presumption. But after the prolonged bullying that some board members engaged in, one can imagine how the staff felt.


And now the real concern. After the minister dismissed the trustees, he appointed an administrator, but that person may hold office only until the school board elections next year.


What happens if the same people are re-elected?


Goldner gives the answer: “The potential return of a similarly constituted board will mean that dysfunction will continue.”


Given that four of those who were bullying responded to Goldner’s report by denying their behaviour was inappropriate, that seems a fair inference. The question is: What, if anything, can the minister do to prevent a replay of these disgraceful events?


I doubt he can stop the bad apples from being re-elected. Neither, I suspect, can the voters. The trustees in question have union backing, which should ensure their return.


The only option might be to turn the tables and require that board members are videotaped during meetings, and copies sent to the ministry for review.


For one thing is clear. The harassment artists on this board cannot be left to their own devices.


jalmcfarlane@shaw.ca

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