Mom threatened with legal action after questioning B.C. principal who's now accused of misappropriation

Barbara Lee, pictured here on Jan. 25, received a letter from a lawyer with the Vancouver School Board in 2014 warning of potential legal action for defamation if she continued to raise allegations of financial improprieties at John Norquay Elementary. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Barbara Lee, pictured here on Jan. 25, received a letter from a lawyer with the Vancouver School Board in 2014 warning of potential legal action for defamation if she continued to raise allegations of financial improprieties at John Norquay Elementary. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A decade before Tricia Rooney was accused of misappropriating funds from a Vancouver elementary school, parents at one of her previous jobs were asking questions about what had happened to the funding meant for their kids' Mandarin program.

Barbara Lee, a parent at John Norquay Elementary, was particularly persistent about asking how then-principal Tricia Rooney was using the money, and why resources promised for the program allegedly hadn't appeared.

Lee's persistence resulted in an October 2014 letter from a Vancouver School Board (VSB) lawyer who warned of the potential for legal action.

"I thought, they're scared," Lee said of her response to the letter. "I just wasn't going to let them get away with it."

The letter, which Lee shared with CBC, said there was "absolutely no basis" for her claims that, among other things, the district was giving her "the runaround while possibly covering up a potential financial irregularity."

It said the school board "reserves all rights to respond to any further defamatory statements" about Rooney or other school district staff.

None of the allegations about financial irregularities at Norquay have been proven. A written statement from a VSB spokesperson said the district conducted an internal review of the situation in 2014.

"No evidence of fraud was found at the school upon completion of the review," the school board said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Last week, Lee's phone "blew up" with messages from fellow parents when news broke that Rooney, also known as Tricia Low, was accused of misappropriating about $170,000 from Britannia Elementary, where she was principal from 2017 to 2020.

Lee says she felt somewhat vindicated by the news, but she was also angry.

"I have to unpack all the feelings that I have," she said.

The allegations about misappropriation at Britannia are contained in a notice of claim filed against Rooney earlier this month on behalf of the school board, alleging "conversion, theft and fraud" from the tiny east side school. It includes allegations that she stole donated gift cards intended for families in need.

Those allegations have not been proven in court and Rooney has yet to file a response. She has not responded to phone calls asking for comment about her time at Norquay or Britannia.

The Ministry of Education confirmed Wednesday that Rooney no longer holds a teaching certificate in B.C., but declined to provide further details.

'Our children have to share resources and textbooks'

Lee said she and other parents at Norquay started asking questions of Rooney in 2011, when the books and technology they understood had been dedicated to the Early Mandarin Bilingual [EMB] program hadn't materialized. They then escalated their concerns to the school board.

"Nobody would tell us why the program wasn't getting the resources it was promised," she said.

"Every time we asked the principal it was stonewalled."

In November 2014, three former chairs of the Norquay parent advisory committee [PAC] co-signed a letter to school board trustees, throwing their full support behind Lee and the other parents demanding accountability.

In that letter, shared with CBC, the former chairs wrote that their requests for a detailed accounting of the Mandarin program funds were repeatedly "ignored" and that Rooney responded to their questions with "vague" answers.

"It was only at the June 2014 year-end PAC meeting that school administration told the parents that all the EMB funding was completely spent and gone," the letter reads.

"We would like to know how these resources were spent when our children have to share resources and textbooks in class and there is no evidence of Mandarin literary material in the school library."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Lee took her concerns public that fall, giving an interview to CTV News in which she said the school board had failed to provide a detailed rundown of how the funds were spent.

The board's spokesperson at the time, Kurt Heinrich, suggested it would be difficult to provide the level of detail the parents were looking for, explaining "it would have to be reformatted, it would have to be changed." He maintained the school board had done its due diligence.

He also addressed the legal letter sent to Lee, explaining that her questions were "distracting staff and trustees and it was becoming a bit of a nuisance and a problem."

In light of the school board lawsuit against Rooney, Lee said she'd like a reconsideration of her concerns about Norquay and an investigation into how district staff responded at the time.

She says she can't help but suspect the school board's reaction to her concerns was connected to her ethnicity, and her failure to conform to stereotypes of Asian women as meek and unwilling to rock the boat.

"What happened to myself and the other parents was part of the playbook of how anti-Asian racism plays out," she said.

"They wanted us to keep quiet, keep our heads down."

The VSB spokesperson said the school board takes allegations of racism and discrimination very seriously.

"The district expects all staff to treat every individual with respect and dignity, free from racial, ethnocultural or religious harassment for all students, staff and other members of the school community including parents," the school board statement says.