Latest PDSB meeting further evidence of a board unwilling to confront issues of systemic discrimination
Despite an agenda dominated by the recent provincial review of systemic discrimination within the Peel District School Board, its chair and other trustees ignored the matter during a Wednesday evening meeting, failing to ask questions and repeatedly shutting down a colleague who has championed the cause of changing the board’s intolerant culture.
That intolerance was on full display throughout the meeting.
Near its start, when the serious business of the board begins, Chair Brad MacDonald introduced the issue that dominated the agenda, the “ministry review of directives”, referring to the mandated orders the provincial education ministry handed down in a scathing report following its investigation of systemic discrimination in the board launched late last year.
Trustees Kathy McDonald, left, and Nokha Dakroub have championed diversity, but have lost faith in the PDSB leadership
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has made it clear that the 27 binding directives have to be implemented swiftly and effectively, pointing out he will not tolerate “continued inaction”.
But after two trustees withdrew from the mediation process to implement the directives, citing a lack of cooperation by other members, Lecce took the unprecedented step of sending in an independent investigator to force the board to comply.
During the Wednesday evening meeting Chair MacDonald stated that, as ordered by the province initially in March, a mediator and a governance expert have been hired, but there was no explanation of how the board hired the two individuals who will now help hold it accountable. Their names were not provided.
Describing the role of the governance expert who has now been retained (the province stated the individual must have either experience as a parliamentarian or other governance expertise), MacDonald said, “She will be identifying procedures and practice for effective, respectful, transparent governance…”.
PDSB Chair Brad MacDonald
MacDonald then gave an “oral report” detailing the obligations of the board under the provincial review and its directives.
“We have much work to do as a team to rebuild our relationships with each other and the community to improve outcomes for students and staff. But we will not be able to do any of this necessary work if we do not work as a cohesive unit. Supported by the mediator, we hope to return to effective and respectful governance that is focused on students so that we can eliminate anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination.”
Moments later, Kathy McDonald asked the chair why his oral report to trustees and the accompanying oral update from PDSB Director Peter Joshua, which was supposed to detail what the board has done so far to meet the province’s directives, were not provided in advance in written form so that she and other elected representatives responsible for governance and accountability on behalf of voters could prepare questions, inform the public of what was being stated in the report and provide critical input to engage in debate over the issue that was the focus of the decision-making meeting.
“Could they not all be walk-on, oral reports? If we could have the courtesy of getting these reports so that we could read them so if we do have critical questions, we are able to prepare and ask them.”
It’s unclear why, for a board under heavy scrutiny for its failed governance, that has been forced by the province to hire a governance expert to address the board’s ongoing ineptness in dealing with issues of equity and diversity, the very reports about the process were not being provided to trustees in advance in written form.
The usual procedure for school boards, just like city councils, is that elected trustees are given such reports days in advance of the decision-making meetings when votes are often taken to determine how the legislative body will move forward on key issues on behalf of the communities they serve.
Instead, Kathy McDonald and other trustees walked in blind, with no idea of what was in the oral reports presented by MacDonald and Joshua Wednesday evening.
“Since our last board meeting on April 15, mediation has started with an independent mediator and interviews with trustees have begun,” MacDonald told the board of trustees.
MacDonald did not explain how the mediation is moving forward after Kathy McDonald and Trustee Nokha Dakroub withdrew from the process, citing the board’s unwillingness to cooperate with them after they, along with stakeholders in the Black community, spearheaded the entire effort that led to the province’s probe.
The chair offered no details about the mediator and a governance expert who has also been hired, as per the requirements of the province’s directives. There was no explanation of the process used by the board for the hiring of the two individuals who will now help hold it accountable. It’s also unclear who approved the cost for the hiring, and why the elected trustees did not vote on matters such as the budget for retaining the two individuals and their selection.
The chair then referred to Lecce’s tough move to call in an independent investigator.
“Last night, the Minister of Education announced that he’s appointed Arleen Huggins to conduct an investigation into Peel board’s compliance with the directives,” the chair stated in his oral report. “We look forward to sharing our progress on the directives and deliverables and timelines with the investigator.”
But MacDonald failed to mention in his public oral report, the reason Lecce made the stunning decision Tuesday to send in an independent investigator, following the board’s April 15 meeting, which only highlighted the dysfunction and lack of cooperation the board is now being forced to address after the provincial probe launched late last year.
Kathy McDonald and Dakroub withdrew from the entire mediation process after it became clear to them that the chair and others were not interested in responsible governance and cooperation to fulfill the province’s mandated directives, despite the orders to do so.
Having seen enough, the education ministry hired its own investigator and stated: “The Minister is directing this investigation pursuant to the authority under section 230 of the Education Act, as a result of concerns that the PDSB has contravened his binding Direction that all members of the Board, the Director of Education, and Associate Directors of Education undertake mandatory mediation (Direction 1).”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has made bold moves to ensure equity in one of Canada's most diverse regions.
That direction “requires the PDSB to satisfy the Minister of Education that the Board can work together with the Director and Associate Directors of Education to provide good governance in the interests of all students of the PDSB.”
The ministry, after observing the continued dysfunction of the board since the binding provincial orders were handed down, laid out five other key directives that might be in jeopardy, prompting the unprecedented independent investigation announced Tuesday.
“The Ministry has concerns about the PDSB’s ability to provide good governance and that the lack of co-operation among the members of the board, and with and among the senior leadership team, might result in a contravention of other Ministerial directions, specifically:
Direction 6 (mandatory trustee learning plan)
Direction 7 (composition of Board committees)
Direction 8 (Director’s performance appraisal)
Direction 12 (Human Rights Commissioner’s independence of office)
Direction 16 (Board anti-racism policy)”.
Wednesday evening’s meeting was more of the same. In an attempt to “rebuild trust” with the Black community, which the chair pledged to do at the start of the meeting, Kathy McDonald brought forward a motion asking the chair to keep trustees better informed about communications with the community, including the sharing of correspondences with stakeholders advocating for equity and the end to discriminatory practices.
Her motion for better transparency was defeated, despite the chair’s claim at the start of the meeting to embrace transparency.
She then tried to get answers to a series of questions about items that she had placed on the agenda.
The chair and many of the other trustees, despite their claim of committing to confronting problems head on, didn’t ask any questions about the issues raised by McDonald, such as what was being done to help Black students who had been unfairly disciplined for behaviour that they were admittedly unreasonably punished for.
The province’s review found that 78 percent of suspensions in Peel high schools were for behaviour categorized as “Other”, meaning it fell outside codified conduct such as bullying, carrying a weapon, physical violence or bringing drugs into school, which are all clearly defined violations that trigger automatic punishment under set guidelines.
When McDonald tried to bring forward questions about what the board was doing to address the almost 80 percent of suspensions characterized as “Other” and the evidence unearthed by the province that Black high school students in the board were being suspended at 2.2 times the rate of other students, she was met with silence.
The province’s probe revealed that some principals were arbitrarily suspending Black students for wearing hoop earrings and hoodies, along with a variety of behaviours that do not warrant such harsh punishment, then marking “Other” as the reason for the severe disciplinary action.
“I think it’s important that these questions be answered,” McDonald said. “I think that these are fundamental questions and are at the root of the problem.” Unfair suspensions, she said, can permanently scar a student.
“As a board we should not be perceived as hiding behind the ministry’s directives. There are actions we can take right now to change the trajectory of success for Black students.”
But she pointed out that her questions about these issues since the province highlighted them in its final report following its months long review ordered by Lecce late last year, have gone unanswered.
“However, the responses provided by the director (Joshua) [to her numerous questions that were on the agenda], in my opinion, demonstrates that we’re hiding behind the directives…it appears to me that it’s like a deflection of the questions.” She detailed how Joshua, instead of answering questions, just restated the directives from the province and reassured trustees that the orders are being followed.
For example, Joshua repeatedly pointed out that the mediator has been retained along with the governance expert, which the board was ordered to do. But, when McDonald kept asking questions about what the board was doing itself to address students currently facing the fallout of past suspensions that were unfair or how it was dealing with students right now who have been put in educational pathways that are detrimental to their future, Brad MacDonald and Joshua failed to answer the questions, while Kathy McDonald was repeatedly shutdown as the other trustees remained silent.
She asked why the board, including many of the trustees, such as Sue Lawton, have failed to raise any questions and concerns themselves for the very students they are responsible for protecting.
Trustee Sue Lawton has failed to advocate for change, often challenging Kathy McDonald
Lawton has yet to explain why she told parents at a meeting in the fall, which she chaired, that a racially insensitive term was never used by a fellow trustee, who admitted he had used the hurtful nickname “McCriminal” for Brampton’s McCrimmon Middle School which has a large Black student body.
The irresponsible behaviour of elected trustees and senior leadership will now be addressed through the province’s just announced independent investigator and the directives it has mandated, which will be overseen by the governance expert and third-party mediator.
Dakroub tweeted out after the meeting, which she was unable to attend as she continues to work on the frontline of the COVID-19 battle for Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, that she doesn’t even understand why the board keeps referring to the mediation process, after she and McDonald withdrew from it because of the board’s unwillingness to answer basic questions.
When McDonald asked the chair questions Wednesday about why trustees were not informed of a defensive statement he released hours after Lecce sent out a tweet last week stating he would not tolerate “continued inaction” by the board – Brad MacDonald claimed in his statement that Lecce’s tweet “demoralized” members of the board – the chair said he had informed trustees via email. But when McDonald informed the chair that she never received an email, he said he would have to check if he sent it.
The statement last week surprised many who could not understand why the chair made such an allegation against Minister Lecce, who merely restated what he had said after the findings of the original review, that he expected a swift response to his directives and would not tolerate “continued inaction” after decades of apathy around systemic discrimination by the board.
When McDonald asked the chair why trustees were not informed when an official apology was released by the chair and the board on behalf of all trustees two weeks ago, the chair said he had told trustees one was being issued, but he would not explain why he did not inform them when it was actually posted on the board’s website, so trustees could have told parents and other concerned stakeholders that the apology to the entire community was available.
“My question still stands, which you have not answered,” Kathy McDonald said to Brad MacDonald.
“I’ve answered your question. Move to the next one,” the chair responded.
“You’ve not answered my question, because I don’t know…”.
The chair cut her off: “I’ve answered the question.”
“That’s okay, I’ll ask the (newly appointed provincial) investigator if they think that’s a good answer to my question.”
The meeting continued in the same way. McDonald asked questions, while the other trustees remained mostly silent, and the chair and Joshua either deflected responses by repeating the province’s directives or asking the trustee to move on.
“I am going through each of these meetings, transcribing them, the exchanges when I ask questions, it highlights that they are not addressing the issue,” McDonald told The Pointer after the meeting.
“The chair makes a statement about the commitment to dealing with discrimination and the lack of transparency, and right after he contradicts it.”
McDonald says she will take all the transcripts of the meetings and other evidence to the newly appointed provincial investigator.
“I will be going armed with the evidence to highlight the continued lack of leadership and transparency.”
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