October 17, 2016 1:55 pm
Updated: October 18, 2016 10:45 am

Former Vancouver School Board chair Mike Lombardi calls firing ‘outrageous’

WATCH: The Vancouver School Board has been fired by B.C.’s education minister. The move comes amid allegations of bullying and harassment. Tanya Beja explains how it got to this point and why the decision was made.

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The beleaguered Vancouver School Board (VSB) was fired by the province’s education minister Monday morning.

B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier said the board was dismissed for failing to adopt a balanced budget by June 30. The step was taken despite the VSB having a budget meeting scheduled tonight.

“It is impossible to have any confidence that a potential last minute change of position on the district signals a fundamental change on the attitude that has so far led the board to refuse to follow the law,” Bernier said.

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“What we have witnessed from the Vancouver School Board is a misplaced focus on political tactics rather than responsible stewardship.”

Former VSB chair person Mike Lombardi called the firing “outrageous” and said the VSB is being “run out” by the government.

At a press conference on Monday afternoon, Lombardi said the board made a decision earlier in the week to vote on a balanced budget Monday night.

“We felt that was very important, considering the minister had made an announcement last week saying that in order to get seismic funding to keep our kids in safe schools, we needed to balance the budget,” he said.

In April, the board refused to balance the budget. And in June, Bernier announced that a full review and forensic audit of the VSB 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.

WATCH: More on the Vancouver School Board being dismissed 

The Vancouver board was the only district in the province that did not submit a balanced budget by June 30.

Former VSB trustee Patti Bacchus echoed Lombardi’s comments and said the VSB did the right things and made the right choices.

“I think this government has made it increasingly difficult for us to do our work,” Bacchus claimed.

“Whether it’s audit after audit, where they find nothing of substance. Whether it’s this 95 per cent requirement that was always unreasonable and caused an incredible amount of stress.”

Former Delta School District Superintendent Dianne Turner has been appointed trustee and will be in the position for a year with the option to extend. As the trustee, Turner assumes all the duties and responsibilities typically required of a board of education, including the obligations to conduct public board meetings and community consultations.

Along with not submitting a balanced budget, Bernier cited the WorkSafeBC investigation into allegations board trustees bullied senior management staff to the point where some staffers have taken leave, as a reason for the decision.

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 on the same time and four more administrators went on leave a day later. Shortly after the allegations and WorkSafeBC investigation came to light, the VSB voted to suspend the public process to close up to 11 schools.

READ MORE: Vancouver School Board faces scrutiny amid workplace harassment allegations

The forensic audit’s deadline was extended by two weeks in early October due to the allegations brought forward about the VSB. Bernier said he received the report, which was overseen by Peter Milburn, B.C.’s former deputy minister of finance, on the weekend and it only “deepened his concerns.”

The report will not be released due to a public privacy complaint filed by Bacchus over confidential information she said was given to the government’s special adviser during his audit of the VSB.

“For the most part there was nothing in the [report] that gave me any confidence that the decisions being made by the board in the past, or going forward, would be beneficial for the students,” Bernier said.

After restoring “order” in the operations of the VSB, it will be Turner’s job to work with her district team and develop a plan that puts the board back on firm financial footing, while further accelerating seismic upgrades and preserving education services for the students, Bernier said.

Global BC legislative bureau chief Keith Baldrey believes Bernier’s announcement was triggered by the VSB’s plan to meet Monday evening to pass a balanced budget.

“This was a preemptive strike to prevent the school board from being able to hang on any longer,” Baldrey said. “And Bernier received several letters from principals and former principals suggesting this type of action.”

Any decisions made by the VSB would be re-visited, including the decision to suspend the school closure process, Baldrey said. But ultimately it will be up to Turner whether she activates that school closure process again.

Baldrey also points out that when the VSB was fired in 1985, the party that controlled the board at the time, COPE, won every seat in the following election.

“So don’t be surprised that the Vision trustees, when the next election is held… that they top the polls again because we’ve seen it in the past,” Baldrey said.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson called the minister’s decision extremely disappointing.

“I believe they can do the best job for our kids and we’re fighting to keep the schools open, so it’s very, very disappointing,” he said.

“It looked like we were coming out of a really challenging time. School trustees have fought really hard with unbelievable cuts for a dozen years now on our school system. Our system is strained without the support from Victoria… it’s incredibly frustrating to see the minister fire them without any evidence or show of what is wrong here.”

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