Vancouver School Board trustees contributed to a toxic work environment in which staff were bullied, harassed and feared for their job security, an external investigation has found.
An executive summary of the report was released Friday, just over four months after the British Columbia School Superintendents Association filed a complaint about the treatment of staff at the board.
"Today is not an easy day," said official trustee Dianne Turner at a news conference. "I find it deeply troubling that we are speaking about bullying and harassment at the Vancouver School Board. Every day we talk to our students about how bullying is unacceptable."
By the time the probe began in October, the board's secretary-treasurer, superintendent and entire senior management team were on indefinite leave.
Education Minister Mike Bernier fired the school board's nine elected trustees days later, on Oct. 17, for failing to pass a balanced budget and replaced them with Turner, a former school district superintendent in nearby Delta.
The full report by lawyer Roslyn Goldner was not made public. Interim secretary-treasurer Guy Bonnefoy said the board expects to receive freedom of information requests and is preparing a redacted copy to be released in response.
Turner said she was deeply distressed by Goldner's findings.
"It was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to read," she said. "I became quite emotional having to read about the incidents described in the report."
The summary, which does not include names or specific incidents, said members of the board routinely engaged in conduct with one another that was "uncivil, disrespectful and rude."
Members of the senior management team also faced direct bullying and personal harassment, creating a "culture of fear" in which they felt their job security was at risk, the summary said.
Of particular significance, the summary said, was the behaviour of certain trustees in relation to plans to close 11 schools in the district. By September 2016, it was untenable for some senior managers to remain in the workplace, it said.
"I find the allegations that certain trustees 'threw the staff under the bus' an apt descriptor of the trustees' conduct," Goldner said in the summary.
"I accept the evidence that certain trustees' public attack of the work of senior staff related to the school closure process undermined and publicly embarrassed and humiliated the superintendent and the senior management team."
In response, former trustees Joy Alexander, Patti Bacchus, Mike Lombardi and Allan Wong, all members of the left-leaning Vision Vancouver party, released a joint statement saying they stand by their decision in early October to suspend school closures. No schools have been closed to date.
"We treated all VSB staff with respect and courtesy and we did not participate in or witness workplace bullying or harassment. We are concerned to hear the findings of the report and agree that workplace bullying and harassment are unacceptable," the statement said.
Lombardi criticized the board for releasing a summary of the report without any evidence or details. In his eight years as a trustee he never witnessed any bullying or harassment, he said.
"To make conclusions that harassment and bullying occurred and not to provide any specific details smears all nine trustees," he said in an interview.
He said staff faced a stressful work environment because of B.C. government cuts that forced the layoffs of 250 teachers and a cut of $150 million to the board's budget.
Trustees were dealing with a trying financial situation, Lombardi said, and at times had to ask staff "tough" questions, but they were always asked in a respectful manner.
Janet Fraser, a former trustee who was the only Green party member, said it was a highly partisan environment and she witnessed some trustees being disrespectful of staff. She declined to name them.
Fraser pointed to the tone and wording of some trustees' questions to staff as well as the way they responded when they didn't like the answers.
"Education is a very emotional issue, but that shouldn't take away from staff being able to have a safe and respectful work environment," she said.
Former trustee Christopher Richardson, a member of the centre-right Non-Partisan Association, said repetitive questioning of staff constitutes bullying.
"I wasn't surprised by the findings of the investigator," he said. "I'm still curious in terms of the specifics."
Bernier said in a statement the ministry has great confidence in board staff and Turner. He noted the B.C. government has committed $740 million to education over the next three years.
WorkSafeBC said it reviewed Goldner's report and concluded the school board's harassment and bullying policies were in compliance with its requirements.
Regardless, Bonnefoy said the board will now review its policies, although he would not provide more details about potential changes.
"It's obvious that we need to make sure that our policy is sound enough that we will not have situations like this arise again."
— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version based on incorrect information provided by the Vancouver School Board said an investigation by WorkSafeBC aligned with Roslyn Goldner's findings.