Hundreds of pages of internal emails between North Vancouver School District staff and trustees reveal some of the reasons why an external consultant concluded earlier this year that there were “dysfunctional interpersonal trustee relations” on the board.
Many names and specific allegations are omitted from the heavily edited emails, released over the last three days in response to a Freedom of Information request, but they give a sense that the seven-member board has struggled from nearly the first day it was formed, after the November 2014 election.
“All in all, it’s been a rough start,” veteran trustee Franci Stratton wrote in early February 2015 to a team-building consultant who had been brought in the help the board less than a month into its four-year term.
The emails include allegations of at least two code of ethics violations, a lack of trust for senior staff, “aggressive and disrespectful” behaviour, a divided board with tense meetings, ongoing tensions between two trustees that culminated with screaming in a bar, breaches of confidentiality, concerns about absenteeism, and allegations of bullying and sexual harassment made by four-term incumbent Susan Skinner.
Skinner has not yet filed a formal complaint, and none of the allegations has been proven.
“I have Trustees who have not been showing up for various reasons… I have had five trustees contact me to say that they do not feel safe when certain people are at meetings,” chair Christie Sacré wrote in November 2017 to a consultant that helps organizations manage change. “There are violations to our code of Ethics/Conduct left, right and centre... And we cannot waste anymore staff time with governing ourselves. It is crazy.”
Four of the seven trustees — Sacré, Megan Higgins, Cyndi Gerlach and Skinner — hope to be re-elected as North Vancouver trustees on Saturday, when the next municipal election will be held. Two are running for other positions (Barry Forward for North Vancouver District Council and Jessica Stanley for trustee in Nanaimo), and Stratton is not running again.
Earlier this year, the provincial education ministry asked consultant Lee Southern to look into problems on the board, and his report concluded that “dysfunctional interpersonal trustee relations negatively impact the board’s performance of its government duties.” The emails released over the last three days give a bit more insight into some of the issues facing the board, but also don’t name names.
“l am concerned that if this behaviour is left unaddressed, that further poor working relationships among board members and lack of decorum will continue to undermine board functioning,” Stanley wrote in May 2017.
She added in an email to Southern in January: “I believe one or two of our trustees are incapable of fulfilling their duties. I would prefer that they not be able to run in the next election as I believe they undermine the functioning of the school district.”
In an interview, Sacré said there was no way to ban people from seeking re-election in a democracy. She said it did take longer for this board to get things done, in some instances, but that trustees and staff investigated and tried to solve all the complaints.
“Do I think that we didn’t do our job? No, we did our job. Do I think we could have done more? Yes, we probably could have. Do I think that people could have sucked it up and moved forward? Possibly, but that is just my own personal opinion,” said Sacré.
Higgins said she takes exception to the suggestion that the entire board was dysfunctional. “Rather, we have two trustees on our board who have repeatedly exhibited improper behaviour,” she said. When asked if those two trustees are running for re-election, she said she couldn’t answer for confidentiality reasons.
Higgins told Postmedia she isn’t convinced that voters have all the information they require to make an informed decision at the ballot box on Oct. 20, but noted she wants to improve transparency on the board should she be elected again.
Gerlach said she does not think voters should worry about the trustees’ past track record, arguing it will be a new board and she is “super optimistic” about the next four years. She said North Vancouver’s experience is not isolated.
“I’ve spoken to other trustees across the province and I’ve heard that sometimes you get a board that struggles to work together well,” she said in an interview. “They have said, ‘Yeah, we had a bad term and now we’ve had a really good term.’ It really is, I think, just the mix of people.”
Sacré said it was the Freedom of Information office, and not the school board, that delayed the release of the documents because it took so long to go through four years of emails.
“To be honest, I think most of us wished it had come out a long time ago, rather than five days prior (to the election), because if the public were to learn more, we would prefer they learn it well in advance and not play games in the end,” she said.
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