Complaints with the Vancouver School Board continue to build amidst bullying allegations and sick leave of senior staff, which prompted the province’s education minister on Thursday morning to extend a forensic audit of the board by two weeks.
The audit report, which is being overseen by Peter Milburn, B.C.’s former deputy minister of finance, was due to be completed on Friday.
But instead, Education Minister Mike Bernier said he’d be “extending his time by two weeks in light of all the changing situations” with the Vancouver School Board.
“I’ve had a special advisor in Vancouver for the last two months reviewing the books, interviewing the staff and talking to the board to try to bring forward recommendations to myself on the best path forward to success for Vancouver and the school district,” Bernier said.
“It’s really important that when I receive this report, it’s accurate and factual to the changing dynamics on what’s happening in Vancouver for me to be able to make decisions.”
In June, Bernier made the announcement that a full review and forensic audit of the Vancouver School Board would be launched following the board’s decision to reject a Ministry of Education proposal to partially address the board’s $18-million shortfall by selling the Kingsgate Mall.
In addition to announcing the extension, Bernier said his deputy minister has written a letter to WorkSafeBC informing them that over the past two months Milburn has spent a lot of time with the board members and staff, and is available to offer information.
“We need to take those allegations seriously. Over the last couple of weeks there has been a change of direction in the VSB around decision-making when we look at their long-range facilities plan and through the consultation process that they’re going through,” Bernier said.
Very drastic and sudden changes have happened in Vancouver and it’s only fair for the auditor to take these into consideration to make recommendations.”
The serious bullying and harassment allegations came several days after two senior VSB staffers, the acting superintendent and the acting treasurer, mysteriously took a medical leave at the same time and a day later, four more administrators went on leave. Shortly after the allegations and WorkSafeBC investigation came to light, the VSB voted to suspend the public process to close up to 11 schools.
Considering the beleaguered VSB’s track record some are asking Bernier why he hasn’t fired the board.
Bernier reiterated the need for gathering “all the appropriate information in Vancouver” and said “it’s a very difficult situation.”
“Fifty-nine of 60 school districts submitted a balanced budget. Vancouver is the only one that didn’t and that’s why I sent in a special advisor,” Bernier said.
Citing the memo he was sent by the BC School Superintendents Association (BCSSA), which outlines a series of complaints about bullying, harassment, and intimidation in the workplace, Bernier said “we have a very disturbing letter of allegations that needs to be investigated” as part of the audit.
“The unfortunate situation in Vancouver is that we have to do an audit at all,” Bernier said. “If the VSB was making good decisions, if they had presented a balanced budget, if they been investing the almost half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money in the right area… we wouldn’t have even needed an audit to go in.”
On Friday Bernier released an open letter to the parents with children in the Vancouver School Board which said:
I know many of you are concerned about what’s been happening around the Vancouver school board. I am too. We are focused on making sure the VSB delivers a quality learning experience, unaffected by what is underway.
Recently, the BC School Superintendents Association informed us of troubling allegations regarding trustees and a workplace that has become toxic for staff who are vital to your board. No parent wants to hear even a hint that something like that could he happening in the place responsible for leading the education of their children.
I want to reassure you that those allegations are being taken seriously – and the matter has been referred to WorkSafeBC because of its jurisdiction regarding bullying and harassment in the workplace.
As well, we will soon be receiving the full report of the special advisor appointed in July to scrutinize the financial situation and management practices of the Vancouver school board.
Here is my commitment to you: we will work to ensure teachers, principals and staff at the Vancouver school board are supported through this period.
The Ministry of Education will remain actively engaged on the education situation in Vancouver. We will move carefully and responsibly through this situation. We remain focused on ensuring the needs of our students and their education is at the heart of what happens.
The new deadline for the audit is set for Oct. 21.