Another PDSB meeting centred on its culture of discrimination sees trustees pass up opportunities to learn
Last night, Peel District School Board met for the second time since Education Minister Stephen Lecce sent an independent investigator to Peel.
Arleen Huggins, a lawyer with experience in human rights cases, was appointed after perceived inaction by the board. PDSB was given 27 binding directives to follow as part of a damning review into anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination within the organization.
On Tuesday evening, a full complement of trustees passed resolutions on the ministry’s directives. Although progress was made on paper, many of the issues that have persisted for years were still on display.
“The investigator that started last week was required because the minister didn’t believe we…” Chair Brad MacDonald began to explain during yesterday’s meeting. He caught himself in the act of admitting Huggins was appointed to look into his board’s perceived failure. But he tried again. “[The Minister] wanted to investigate [whether] we [are] meeting the directives and being able to achieve the directives,” he said instead.
Parents and other stakeholders are growing tired of hearing excuses and promises to do better; taking ownership of failure might have been refreshing for many, but the chair continued with a similar response that the board has used since the brutal review by the province revealed a culture that seems to have a different set of standards for different students.
The Ministry of Education report into PDSB was published in March, filled with first-hand accounts of anti-Black racism, some by educators, including administrators, within the board. In an apology issued after the review was completed, and mandated by the ministry, PDSB itself admitted its issues are “systemic” and that the board has caused “harm” to Black students.
Peel's Black community has long pushed for reform within the PDSB. Even after the damning provincial review, it seems little has changed within the board.
Despite this, board meetings since the review was published have been plagued by denial and a lack of action from most trustees. Frustration reached a breaking point in mid-April for Trustee Nokha Dakroub and Kathy McDonald. The pair have been rebels on the generally deflective board, standing up for a Black community that has felt unheard and discriminated against for decades.
Both withdrew from the mediation mandated by the ministry. The process was one of the directives handed down by Lecce, all designed to push the board to change its attitude and work to make amends for the hurt and suffering it has caused to Black children, and other visible minorities, in Peel.
Even with this breakdown in mediation, news that was carried in media outlets around the province, Chair MacDonald asserted the process was nearing completion in a verbal update at last night’s meeting.
“Since our last meeting on April 29, the mediation was started with an independent mediator,” MacDonald said. “Interviews with trustees and [the] directors office have been completed. The interim report will be submitted on May 14.”
Asked by The Pointer how this was possible without the two trustees who have been most critical of the process, MacDonald referred to the report that will be submitted. He said it would hold the answers. Pressed further, PDSB said the process was confidential and that “no one, other than the two trustees, would know that information.”
The board also confirmed it had “ended” its contract with integrity commissioner, Sandhya Kohli. She was responsible for a report that absolved Trustee William Davies of any wrongdoing when he called McCrimmon Middle School in Brampton, with a majority of students who are racialized, “McCriminal”. The report attacked Trustee Kathy McDonald for her advocacy on the issue in support of the Black community, and was condemned by Black parents and advocates in Peel. The provincial review singled out Kohli’s harsh treatment of McDonald, calling it unwarranted and misplaced.
Kohli was fired by Durham District School Board at the beginning of May.
The PDSB has ended the contract of integrity commissioner Sandhya Kohli.
"The Peel District School Board has ended its contract with its Integrity Commissioner. The board's complaint process, pertaining to Trustees' Code of Conduct, is currently suspended, as per Directive 3 of the Minister of Education's directives,” PDSB said in a statement.
“The Board is committed to beginning a search to retain a new Integrity Commissioner."
Two more of the Ministry’s directives were addressed at the Tuesday evening meeting, which ran well past 11 p.m. Directive 6, to create a mandatory annual learning plan for all board members, and Directive 7, to ensure that diversity is reflected in all committees, were passed.
Discussion around the sixth directive highlighted why an independent investigator has been sent in to ensure the board’s compliance. A report prepared by Chair MacDonald detailed the mandatory training trustees should receive going forward as well as a summary of their education since 2018. That summary included an item from February 2019 titled “anti-Black racism and bias awareness training.”
However, the event labelled as “training” was an overview of the We Rise Together action plan and not what MacDonald’s report claimed. Trustees McDonald and Dakroub questioned the wording, with the latter tabling a motion to remove the February item from the report altogether, so as not to give the impression that training had been provided, when it had not.
“It is very important to note this was not a fulsome anti-Black racism and bias awareness training,” McDonald argued. “It was not an overview of anti-Black racism and bias awareness training. It had nothing to do with anti-Black racism and bias awareness training. It was an overview of the We Rise Together Action Plan, it is extremely important to note the difference because it is like apples and oranges.”
Trustee Kathy McDonald
As the trustee hit her stride, she was cut off by the Chair, saying she had to speak to the motion. McDonald countered, stating that’s exactly what she was doing; she was explaining why the sentence was inaccurate and should be removed. It was obvious that she was speaking to the motion, but it didn’t stop the chair from using the same tactics members have been using against both of their dissident colleagues when they have tried to raise questions or push for more constructive actions regarding the provincial directives.
The strict policing of McDonald’s language during the debate stood in stark contrast to oral updates provided by Director Peter Joshua and Chair MacDonald. Both shared news of progress on Ministry directives that trustees had not been privy to before. Despite agreeing to submit his reports in writing at the last meeting after a request from Trustee McDonald, the chair professed he had run out of time and had settled to do his oral report “on the cuff of the moment.”
It was another example of how cavalier the board has been toward the biggest issue it faces. Dozens of community members have told The Pointer that Chair MacDonald and Joshua continue to contradict their own claims of taking the ministry’s demands seriously. Claiming he had run out of time to follow the basic practice of providing proper advance notice so members and the public could prepare ahead of the meeting, was just the latest example.
Frustrated by the ongoing lack of professional conduct, trustees eventually voted to mandate that all future oral reports must be accompanied by written submissions in advance. The move, which technically should not have been needed because of rules already in place demanding proper advance public notice, will allow board members to scrutinize and prepare for what is to be presented.
When McDonald was able to resume her explanation of why an overview of the WeRise plan was not anti-Black racism training, she was met by colleagues who remained unreceptive. Trustee Robert Crocker joined the debate, saying he attended the so-called training in 2019, disagreeing with Dakroub’s calls to strike it from the report to the Ministry of Education.
“I’m opposed to the amendment, Chair,” he said. “I’m looking in my day book, I was there [and] my note just says — and I assume it’s right — it says ‘racism training.’ I don’t mind seeing the name changed, if it was an overview of WeRise, I think that’s a good start. I don’t think anyone is claiming everything we ever needed to know happened on that Saturday. I don’t mind changing the name, but I don’t want to take it out.”
In a contrite oral statement to members of the board later in the meeting summarizing the work the board still has to do, Director Joshua said PDSB was listening to those with lived experience of racism and discrimination. He said their work will be guided by those narratives and take place through an anti-oppression lens.
Crocker trying to correct the trustee who has displayed her deep knowledge on the matter (compared to his reference to a two-word note he had scrolled down) throughout her time on the board, while he has been virtually silent on the topic of anti-Black racism training, was another contradiction of Joshua’s claim that people with lived experience, such as Trustee McDonald, would be listened to.
“This is very, very concerning and very, very disappointing,” Dakroub said, closing the debate on her motion. “I think what the trustees seem to be missing from this is that putting that (the claim that a brief overview of a completely different policy amounts to training) [in the motion] is irrelevant to the actual directive, because the directives are your new action plan.”
PDSB Director Peter Joshua
The aim of the Ministry’s directives was to find a path forward for the board, not to look back.
“To be quite honest it seems a bit misleading,” Dakroub added.
The motion as worded failed and, in its place, the board corrected the phrasing in the report from any reference of training to say members attended an “overview” of the WeRise movement.
But, even with the correction, the debate exemplified the issues that appear to remain at PDSB.
The ministry’s report handed down a damning indictment of the organization. Trustees are elected and accountable for the actions of the board: a scathing review of PDSB is a damning review of its trustees.
To have some members quibbling over whether or not they can include a previous overview of a program to suggest members have proactively taken proper training on anti-Black racism, suggests trustees are more interested in defending their historical lack of action and still do not understand — or do not want to confront — the central finding of the province’s alarming investigation, that most of them have utterly failed to do their job.
Lecce is not asking PDSB to rummage through the archives to find evidence they have paid attention to Black issues in the past. The review makes it clear the board’s previous actions were grievously lacking. The directives are designed to teach, make wholesale changes and move forward.
Crocker’s decision to draw on a note scribbled in a diary more than one year ago instead of listening to McDonald, who has lived experience, is not in that spirit. To move forward, it is clear trustees will have to take ownership of their mistakes and show a willingness to learn.
Arleen Huggins, the province’s investigator, will submit her report into PDSB’s compliance on May 18.
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