Ministry orders probe of North Vancouver school board

Allegations of harassment, dysfunction to be reviewed by outside expert

A consultant brought in by the Ministry of Education to review interpersonal problems among trustees at the North Vancouver School District board table is expected to report back with recommendations sometime in the next month.

A North Shore News investigation in December pointed to one trustee who rarely attends board meetings in person, her allegations of workplace sexual harassment and bullying, and allegations from other trustees of board dysfunction that makes it hard for trustees to do their jobs. Since then, the Ministry of Education has hired outside governance consultant Lee Southern to identify concerns and report back to the ministry with recommendations for further action.

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Southern, a former executive director of the B.C. School Trustees Association who has reviewed school board problems in other districts, is expected to report back in the next few weeks, according to a ministry staffer.

At the same time, school trustees have asked staff to research possible sanctions that could be put in place for board members who are not doing their public duty.

Issues that have been simmering around the board table came into public focus in November, when only three of the seven school trustees showed up in person for their regular board meeting.

According to school board minutes, trustee Susan Skinner has attended only one public board meeting in person since the previous school year began in September 2016. Skinner has alleged she is not attending because she has been subjected to bullying and harassment, but has not provided any specifics to date.

At least two other trustees said they are frustrated by the behaviour of other board members.

At the board’s most recent public meeting — at which trustees also voted to give themselves a two per cent pay raise — trustees voted to have staff research what other local governments and school boards do when elected officials aren’t doing their jobs.

Board chair Christie Sacré said she’d like to see some information about a possible “range of consequences” to address elected officials who neglect their duties or breach their code of ethics “up to and including” garnisheeing of a trustee’s pay.

Sacré said she’d like to see staff report back by April at the latest.

Trustee Jessica Stanley said in the meeting she “wholeheartedly supports” the move. Currently the board has a code of conduct that trustees are expected to follow but there is “no established recourse if we face challenging circumstances,” she said. “We have no guidelines on how to respond appropriately.”

Trustee Megan Higgins said she supports the concept, but is concerned about potential costs. “I’m already very concerned about the amount of money we’ve spent and time we’ve spent talking about trustee behaviour,” she said.

Skinner, who attended the meeting by phone, also spoke in favour of the information-gathering exercise, although she voiced concerns over potential legal costs. “We have spent an inordinate amount of time and money on personal issues, small and large,” she said.

Skinner said it would be important to highlight upholding the code of ethics in discussions of trustee sanctions, “not just attendance.

“Within that code of ethics there’s a prescription for socially mature and professional behaviour. When there’s a breach, it could be bullying and it can affect someone’s attendance or what committees they get on,” she said.

During the previous school year, Skinner was absent for most public meetings, including the meeting where the board passed its $182-million budget.

According to the Ministry of Education, a trustee who fails to attend board meetings for at least three months without permission of the board can be deemed unqualified to hold office.

Skinner had permission of the board to take a leave of absence for one three-month period. At other times, she attended information meetings that were not open to the public but were still considered board meetings, said Sacré.

Since September, Skinner has been attending public meetings by phone, which is provided for in the School Act. Sacré said attendance by phone is not ideal but is preferable to a trustee being absent.

At the December board meeting, Skinner participated in a secret ballot vote for which trustee would represent the board on various provincial organizations by text messaging staff.

Sacré said using text messaging for votes has been done before when other trustees were taking part in meetings by phone.

Sacré said Skinner has not yet provided her with any specifics about her allegations of harassment and bullying or made a formal complaint.

“I haven’t received anything yet,” she said. “I don’t know what she’s going to put in her report.”

Sacré said she has spoken with Skinner and assured her there is support available if she needs it.

The North Shore News was unable to reach Skinner this week for comment.

In a previous email, Skinner stated: “I have been struggling and aspiring to recover, participate in my position and put down on paper a multi-year report of misconduct and abuse.”

The North Shore News has not been provided with details of the allegations.

Sacré added she hopes Skinner will either come forward with specific concerns soon or stop making the allegations. “It doesn’t look good on our school district,” she said, adding, “We’re not trying to hide from this. We are working through these issues.”

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