In stunning move, PDSB trustees unite and vote for province to take over embattled board
With an ultimatum by the Minister of Education looming over them, elected trustees of the Peel District School Board have voted to bring in a provincial supervisor to oversee their work. The move, effectively an admission by trustees of their own inability to stop systemic anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination within the board, hands power to the province to govern one of the largest school systems in the country.
As the clock ticked toward midnight in a protracted meeting of the board Wednesday night, Vice Chair David Green tabled a motion to ask the province for help. Brought in response to the ministry’s most recent investigation into the board, and its findings of continued dysfunction, Green said he and his colleagues needed help.
Trustees Kathy McDonald and Nokha Dakroub have fought to bring changes to the PDSB
“[PSDB] request … that the minister appoint and delegate… a supervisor to assist the Peel District School Board,” the motion read.
Green stipulated that he was asking for a supervisor to remain in place until at least December 2020.
The decision brought the first moment of unity PDSB has shared in months. In an institution where votes have traditionally split 10-2 on a variety of issues around anti-Black racism and other types of discrimination, with Kathy McDonald and Nokha Dakroub fighting unsuccessfully for change, on Wedndesday all trustees backed the decision to call in the province. Some shared their regret for failing to turn the tide of anti-Black racism engulfing their administration.
McDonald and Dakroub, previously the lone voices speaking out for Black students, were finally backed up and had their pleas echoed by colleagues. Pushback and silence, which framed so many recent meetings, were replaced by introspection and admission.
“We did not hear the screams of our Black community,” Trustee Balbir Sohi said. “Instead, we decided to remain insensitive… We issued empty statements again and again, without taking any meaningful action.”
Trustee McDonald, who fought tooth and nail to bring the moment of reflection to the PDSB boardroom, was somber. “I really want to speak to every single student, every little Black boy and Black girl at this board… to let you know you’re worthy and you’re worthy of an education that you are legally entitled to.”
Black parents and other advocates have led the push for change
Dakroub added she hoped the board’s well documented divisions would no longer be the subject of the discussion. “We certainly have personality conflict,” she acknowledged, saying the personal issues at the board had dominated the media dialogue. “I have to say I am very happy, I am very proud, that we are coming to this conclusion as a team – together,” she added.
Chair Brad MacDonald, in his speech, accepted his responsibility for “not doing more” to bring trustees together over the past few months.
The stunning decision was in contrast with the tone coming from PDSB in the weeks and months since the provincial lens first focused on its failures to deal with institutionalized discrimination.
The motion recognized that previous action was not effective or quick enough; it called for help.
When Education Minister Stephen Lecce initially announced an investigation in November, the board did not even acknowledge he was looking into anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination entrenched in the organization.
The board called the investigation a probe to help with “governance” issues, despite Lecce clearly stating the dramatic step was to eradicate anti-Black racism and other types of damaging behaviour rooted in intolerance and systemic biases.
Addressing the unprecedented move, Lecce at the time said that “discrimination and prejudice” against students would not be tolerated. He underlined why the investigation was being launched: “Allegations related to equity in the Peel District School Board have raised concerns, specifically related to anti-Black racism.”
The board’s parallel statement on the review made no such references to anti-Black racism, Islamophobia or discrimination. A statement by then-chair Stan Cameron and former vice chair Sue Lawton simply said, “We made a commitment to work on our governance and so we reached out to the Ministry of Education for support.”
It was a foreshadowing of the board’s unwillingness to even name the deep seated, decades-old problems that have plagued the system, which serves 155,000 students, almost 84 percent of whom identify as visible minorities.
When the investigation report was published in March, it was damning. The review was filled with evidence of Black students habitually treated unfairly by the board, routinely suspended for no proper reason, streamed into vocational pathways that do damage to their future prospects and subjected to racist behaviour in and out of the classroom.
Advocates such as Idris Orughu want Director Peter Joshua to resign; Wednesday's decision might lead to his departure
Much of the criticism was directed at PDSB Director Peter Joshua, whose behaviour and inaction has led to widespread calls for his resignation.
PDSB was forced to apologize and publicly acknowledge the anti-Black racism it had inflicted upon its own students.
The apology was one of 27 binding directives, with specific timelines and steps, laid out by the education ministry. Others included mediation between trustees to improve their working relationship, a review of Director Joshua’s performance on equity (something he has never had) and a pilot project to end streaming of students out of regular educational pathways in grades 9 and 10, a practice shown to disproportionately harm Black students.
The meetings that followed the report were tense and danced around the issues. Joshua was regularly quoted saying he was treating the directives as more than “box ticking,” but the evidence of his inaction and disinterest contradicted his claims.
By the beginning of April, Trustees McDonald and Dakroub, the two members on the board who have advocated for the protection of Black and other marginalized students, had withdrawn from the mediation process, effectively causing it to fail. Speaking to The Pointer at the time, they said they did not believe their colleagues were interested in taking the issue seriously or engaging in the introspection required to change.
The public board meetings provided proof of this, as both were routinely shut down whenever they tried to address the ministry’s 27 directives or ask other questions about what the board, specifically Joshua and Chair Brad MacDonald, were doing to eradicate systemic problems around race and other forms of discrimation deeply woven into PDSB’s culture.
The behaviour of the director and chair during these meetings throughout the late winter and early spring was alarming, especially considering the damning investigation that had just been conducted by the province.
Reports to address the 27 directives were not placed in writing onto meeting agendas in advance, leaving trustees in the dark about what the director and chair presented. Simple questions went unanswered. Procedural claims against McDonald and Dakroub were used to silence them, despite no justification for the so-called rules that seemed to be made up on the spot.
The entire process to fix systemic racism at the board had broken down, but Chair MacDonald publicly maintained the board was meeting its objectives and mediation was succeeding.
Notified by the two trustees that they had withdrawn from the process, Lecce appointed lawyer Arleen Huggins as an independent investigator to audit PDSB’s compliance with his directives. On May 15, she filed her report and the ministry published it for the public to view on June 8.
The report’s 26 pages turned a keen eye to the inner workings of the board and director’s office. The findings confirmed PDSB had wasted the weeks since the review was published on infighting, deflection and denial. The review was summarized by a quote from Chair MacDonald in which he said, “it is against our human rights to force us to apologize,” raising questions about any willingness by the board to even accept it has a problem.
Huggins wrote in her investigation report into the board’s compliance with the ministry’s directives, that “I have determined that the collective Board and the Director’s Office is lacking both the ability and capacity, and perhaps even more importantly, the will, to address the findings in the Report, and therefore future non-compliance with the Minister’s binding Directions is probable.”
Accompanying its publication, was an ultimatum: get your house in order by June 22 or face the consequences.
In asking the Education Ministry to install a supervisor to take over governance, it appears Chair MacDonald and the board of trustees are admitting defeat. They are acknowledging what the Huggins report found – PDSB lacks the skills, motivation and understanding to eradicate the anti-Black racism and other discrimination that permeates its leadership.
Closing the conversation on the motion to call in the province, Chair MacDonald thanked embattled Director Joshua, his fellow trustees and staff at the board.
“We welcome the help with open arms,” he said of the looming provincial supervision. “We know that we need to do better.”
He added that everyone who had “challenged us to do better” contributed to the decisive action Wednesday.
Assuming they accept the board’s request, Lecce and his team will soon be directly responsible for the safety and educational development of thousands of students who were being harmed by the PDSB.
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