01/15/2015 04:00 EST | Updated 03/16/2015 05:59 EDT

Review blames trustees for 'culture of fear' at Toronto District School Board

TORONTO - A culture of fear at the Toronto District School Board is getting worse because elected trustees "interfere" in everything from hiring principals to procurements, an external review ordered by the Ontario government concluded Thursday.

The fear is so deep administrators, superintendents and principals use personal emails and phones to communicate because they suspect the board's systems are monitored, and review author Margaret Wilson found their fears justified.

Wilson's staff had to start using cell phones to line up interviews at the TDSB because the first people she met said everyone at the board knew about the meetings ahead of time.

"It was obvious they knew we were meeting with specific people," Wilson said in a news conference after her report was released. "I've never interviewed people before where they burst into tears because they're under such stress."

Wilson, the former registrar of the Ontario College of Teachers, said having trustees involved in the promotions process was a major contributor to the culture of fear because it gave them control over people's careers.

"The level of fear among senior staff is dreadful," said Wilson, who was appointed by Education Minister Liz Sandals in November to conduct the review.

The board of trustees "ignored" written warnings that they were not to sit on hiring panels except for the director of education, added Wilson.

"Given the culture of fear I observed, even one trustee on a hiring panel could be enough to sway the process," she said. "The level of trustee involvement in the promotion process raises an obvious question — to whom do vice-principals, principals and superintendents owe loyalty?"

The "fear factor" at the TDSB has not been adequately addressed since it was first identified in another report two years ago, said Wilson.

"I regret to confirm that the culture of fear referred to the Ernst and Young audit is even more pervasive than it was in 2013, and it has seeped down to the level of school principals, vice principals and in some cases, teachers," she said.

Some trustees were also involved in the hiring of support staff, and some school principals said they were "harassed" by trustees, added Wilson.

"Some have a direct say in procurement for their schools, right down to the colour of the pencils," she said.

The 22 trustees at the TDSB will lose their offices, have their budgets cut and must no longer be involved in the promotions, appointments and transfers of school principals, vice-principals and superintendents, said Sandals.

"Despite previous reports, and support provided by the province to the TDSB, there continues to be ongoing operational and governance issues which demand greater attention," she said.

The report also found the TDSB won't sell under-used buildings to the city's Catholic school board, despite staff recommendations, and is keeping open 79 schools that are at less than 50 per cent capacity. Staffing, heating, lighting and maintaining those schools "creates a drain on the rest of the system," said Wilson.

It's likely some of those schools will close as the TDSB follows through on the recommendations in Wilson's report, said Sandals.

The province appointed Wilson to conduct the external review after a tense standoff between education director Donna Quan and several trustees over her refusal to release her employment contract. The situation does not appear to have improved with the election of 11 new board members in November.

"Too many employees, and a number of trustees, have no confidence in the ability of the new board to steer this ship away from the rocks," concluded Wilson. "I agree that given how the board operates, the position of director is nearly untenable."

Sandals directed the TDSB to lower Quan's salary to the $272,000 paid to her predecessor, something she'd told them in writing last month, but the trustees still went ahead and voted to pay her $289,000. The TDSB said Thursday the salary issue would have to go back to the board before it could be lowered.

The TDSB, which has 246,000 students in nearly 600 schools and over 50,000 employees, said it wants to "turn the page on issues that have plagued the board" for years.

"We know that the public deserves better," said TDSB chair Shaun Chen. "We know that we must continue to improve and build trust between trustees and staff, and rebuild the confidence between the board and the public."

The Progressive Conservatives said the Liberal government was to blame for the ongoing problems at the TDSB because it didn't provide proper oversight for a board that gets $3 billion a year from the province, while the NDP said the real problem was underfunding of the education system.

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