North Van school trustee no-shows raise questions

School board trustees in North Vancouver are working on a set of rules that will set out expectations for attendance and behaviour at meetings next term amid allegations of serious dysfunction around the board table.

The issues include one trustee who doesn’t show up for public meetings and her allegations of workplace sexual harassment and bullying as well as assertions from other board members that constant navel gazing about personal issues makes it hard for the board to do its job.

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Some of the behind-the-scenes challenges of the school board were recently highlighted when only three trustees showed up in person for the last public board meeting. The board was only able to form a quorum when two more trustees phoned in to participate.

Board chair Christie Sacré said the situation at the meeting Nov. 21 was unusual, but added it can be frustrating when trustees skip meetings.

“I don’t think you can do your job properly if you don’t have fulsome knowledge of what’s happening,” she said.

Topping the absentee list is trustee Susan Skinner, a longtime member of the board who was first elected in 2005. According to school district minutes, Skinner has attended only one public board meeting in person since the previous school year began in September 2016. That included being absent when the board discussed and passed its $182-million budget in June.

Since this September, Skinner has been participating in meetings by phone.

Some trustees said they don’t mind colleagues phoning in.

But others look less favourably upon it.

“I do have an issue with people calling in,” said trustee Cyndi Gerlach. Gerlach said while everyone has situations that make phoning in necessary once in a while, that practice should not be a regular occurrence. “From my perspective we were elected to do a job,” she said. “One of those (duties) is to attend public board meetings.”

Trustee Franci Stratton said part of the role of board members is to be present for debates. “Being there in person allows for a different conversation,” she said.

Sacré said her understanding of the reason for Skinner’s absence at public meetings is “because she doesn’t feel well.”

Skinner did request and was granted a three-month leave of absence in September 2016.

Skinner, however, said the reason she doesn’t attend is that she has experienced “workplace sexual harassment and bullying.”

“I find it extremely harmful to my well-being and a toxic environment to walk into,” she said.

Skinner declined to go into any specifics but said the issue goes back a number of years, adding she is disappointed that her concerns don’t seem to have been taken seriously.  She said she has spoken to WorkSafeBC and Sacré about the allegations and intends to provide further information to Sacré before requesting another leave from the board. A spokesman for WorkSafeBC said he was unable to confirm whether a complaint has been filed due to privacy legislation.

Sacré said Skinner has not provided any specifics and has not filed a formal complaint with the board. “I have no idea what she’s alleging happened,” said Sacré. “I don’t know if allegations are based on hard facts or feelings and perceptions.”

Sacré added anytime a written complaint is filed, there is a process the board would go through to examine it.

Skinner isn’t the only unhappy member of the board.

Trustee Megan Higgins said the reason she wasn’t at the last meeting was “because of my level of frustration with the lack of functioning of the board.

“I’m frustrated by the behaviour of the trustees in the meetings, making them unproductive,” she said.

Higgins declined to talk about specifics, suggesting the behaviour she was referring to happened in meetings not attended by the public.

Trustee Jessica Stanley echoed those feelings of frustration. “I can’t say we work well together as a board,” she said.  

Sacré, however, doesn’t share that assessment.

“I think that the seven of us have very strong personalities and we don’t always see eye to eye,” she said. Sacré said the seven trustees have very different “communication styles” and that can be challenging, but hasn’t prevented the board from doing its work.

Trustee Barry Forward added the only real measure of a school board’s success is to look at, “What has it accomplished? What has it done for students in the community?”

Stanley, meanwhile, faces additional logistical challenges in making it to meetings since moving to Nanaimo with her family in August.

Stanley said she struggled with the decision to continue serving as a trustee, but felt it was in the best interests of the school district to complete her term and not trigger an expensive by-election.

Trustees hold office until the next general school election, on Oct. 20, 2018.

Stanley missed the Nov. 21 public board meeting but has attended the other public board meetings since her move.

Trustees are paid between $23,000 and $25,000 a year for performing their duties.

Dermod Travis, executive director of Integrity BC, called it “incredibly inappropriate” for anyone who’s been elected to regularly skip public meetings.

“It’s just not acceptable for someone who decided to run (for office) to decide to do the job via telephone,” he said. “It’s an insult to the voters.”

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