Governance issues at North Van school board rack up $200K in costs

The North Vancouver Board of Education spent nearly $200,000 in just over three years on lawyers and governance experts brought in to help investigate complaints into alleged inappropriate behaviour by trustees and deal with dysfunction around the board table.

But the public may not find out details of why that money was spent before heading to the ballot box to elect a new board in October. The school district has said there are so many documents potentially tied to those issues that it won’t be able to provide a full response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the North Shore News at the beginning of March until Oct. 16 – four days before the local elections.

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Earlier this year, consultant Lee Southern was hired by the Ministry of Education at a cost of between $6,000 and $10,000 to review problems among trustees.

Southern’s report confirmed concerns about a dysfunctional board, stating that “dysfunctional interpersonal trustee relations negatively impact the board’s performance of its governance duties.”

The report pointed to two key problems: the “bullying behaviour” of one trustee – whose name was edited out of the report released by the ministry of education – “towards staff and elected colleagues” which “impairs the willingness of individual trustees to participate fully in board deliberations, particularly in closed meetings … over concern about personal attacks,” according to Southern.

The report also points to public claims made by trustee Susan Skinner – whose name is also edited out of the report – about “workplace sexual harassment and bullying.”

Following Southern’s report, the board agreed to a number of recommendations, including putting an end to the longstanding practice of holding regular board information sessions with staff behind closed doors.

Since May, the school district has also begun livestreaming its public meetings and making those videos publicly available on its website.

Trustee Megan Higgins said that’s something she’s pleased to see, along with the reduction in in-camera meetings.

But Higgins said she remains concerned about the amount of money the school board has spent on navel-gazing activities.

Dermod Travis, executive director of the watchdog group Integrity BC, said in his opinion, for a school board to spend $200,000 on their own governance issues is excessive.

Recently, trustees met to discuss what should be in a “trustee handbook” that will describe expected behaviour – including the expectation trustees show up for meetings.

But for now, Skinner, who has shown up in person for only one regular public school board meeting in the last two school years – will continue to hold her position and be paid her full salary of between $23,000 and $25,000 a year.

In an interview, North Vancouver Board of Education chair Christie Sacre acknowledged that having trustees phone in or be absent for meetings isn’t ideal.

But Sacre said legally it would be difficult to suddenly sanction or stop paying a trustee.

In December, Skinner told the North Shore News she isn’t attending meetings in person because of alleged sexual harassment and bullying she has been subjected to.

She has not provided details or filed a formal complaint so far.

Sacre said Skinner has periodically continued to voice her intention to do so but “the date she says it will be there comes and goes and we haven’t received anything.”

Sacre said her understanding of why Skinner doesn’t show up is “she’s not well.”

Under the School Act, trustees can be removed from office by the province for not showing up to meetings, but are considered to meet an acceptable standard if they attend one meeting every four months – which includes both in-camera meetings and attending by phone.

Travis said in the absence of an official complaint that can be investigated, Skinner’s regular habit of showing up to meetings by phone – or not showing up at all – is “a completely unacceptable standard” for an elected representative. “When you run for public office you know what comes with the package,” he said.

Skinner did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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