Infighting escalates with legal action at English Montreal School Board

Click to play video: 'Battle at English Montreal School Board' Battle at English Montreal School Board
WATCH ABOVE: The English Montreal School Board's chairperson and former vice-chair are facing a series of allegations – including psychological harassment and breaches of the council's code of ethics. As Global's Anne Leclair reports in this exclusive story, both took legal action – Nov 27, 2018

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) is facing allegations of psychological harassment and its chair and former vice-chair face allegations regarding breaches of the council’s code of ethics.

But it’s not until the chair and vice-chair recently took the school board’s ethics commissioners to court that many discovered the extent to which the infighting had escalated. Meanwhile, both the chair and former vice-chair claim it was well within their rights to launch the legal proceedings.

When the majority of commissioners at the EMSB voted to oust then vice-chair Sylvia Lo Bianco in late September, it was clearly controversial but also necessary if you ask her opponents.

“The council had to find a way to manage the conflict that developed between senior managers and the chairman and vice-chair,” EMSB commissioner Julien Feldman said.

READ MORE: Parents fear their fight for services landed their son in middle of school board battle

The council has been locked in a battle for close to two years, with a growing number of commissioners pointing the finger at chair Angela Mancini and Lo Bianco.

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It escalated when the board’s director general filed two ethics complaints against both of them.

The pair then filed a judicial review to find out exactly why the complaints were being investigated.

READ MORE: Montreal English schools ‘bursting at the seams’ as classes begin

“We went through a procedure to ask the ethics commissioner to motivate the reason why he was retaining it,” Lo Bianco said.

The EMSB’s director general Ann Marie Matheson wouldn’t comment about the complaint, instead, she referred Global News to the new vice-chair.

“I believe that their initial intent was to have it [the complaint] quashed from the get-go,” vice-chair Joe Ortona said. “I couldn’t tell you why they took that avenue.”

Ortona claims he and many other commissioners had no idea about the legal proceedings until the issue came up at a council meeting in August.

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“It would be just strange that the ethics commissioners would have to go to Superior court to defend their application of the code of ethics,” Ortona told Global News. “That’s our code of ethics.”

WATCH BELOW: Montreal student caught in the middle of EMSB feud

Click to play video: 'Montreal student caught in the middle of EMSB feud' Montreal student caught in the middle of EMSB feud
Montreal student caught in the middle of EMSB feud – Nov 21, 2018

Lo Bianco claims it was her right to ask for a judicial review and that the school board should have covered her legal costs as per the Education Act.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said.

“It’s regrettable that things are occurring the way they are but at a certain point, I have to defend myself.”

In an interview over the phone, Mancini accused her own school board of making what could have been a simple legal process longer and more costly than necessary.

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“It’s very clear to me how excessive the school board was going to be in trying to be part of a process that they had no business being a part of,” Mancini said.

Mancini and Lo Bianco claim the board unnecessarily spent more than $30,000 of taxpayers’ money to contest their legal proceedings. Ortona insists the board had no choice but to defend the ethics commissioners.

READ MORE: Enrolment is up at EMSB for first time in 15 years

Both Lo Bianco and Mancini claim they initially requested a publication ban in order to protect the identity of everyone involved, but Ortona is calling their bluff.

“It isn’t true that they tried to protect all parties because the other parties identities were revealed in the case,” Ortona said.

“The identity of the plaintiffs were [initially] protected, not everybody.”

READ MORE: Family of girl with special needs files lawsuit against English Montreal School Board

The majority of commissioners found out about the legal proceedings several weeks later, when the board requested the publication ban be lifted. Mancini and Lo Bianco ended up withdrawing their request for a judicial review.

“The minute the school board decided that they needed to be involved and spent a lot of taxpayer money doing it, for Sylvia and I, it was a question at this point, going against our principles of having money spent so we withdrew,” Mancini explained.

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Despite the turmoil and allegations, Mancini insists she has no intention of resigning. Still, many commissioners aren’t convinced the status quo is working.

“I think the chairman has to work harder to earn the trust of the council and the administration and also the community,” Feldman said.

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