Quebec's 10-month probe into EMSB went deep, but what did it find?

The Quebec government’s 10-month probe of the English Montreal School Board didn’t pull any punches — examining meeting minutes, interviewing whistleblowers and analyzing expenditures ranging from chocolates to plane tickets.

Tell-all report sheds light on budgetary irregularities, infighting and mismanagement

The English Montreal School Board, the province's largest school board in the English system, was placed under trusteeship Wednesday. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The Quebec government's 10-month probe into the English Montreal School Board didn't pull any punches — examining meeting minutes, interviewing whistleblowers and analyzing expenditures ranging from chocolates to plane tickets.

Ministry of Education investigators reviewed video footage of meetings and sat down face to face with every school commissioner individually, some for more than six hours' duration.

The end result was announced Wednesday,  when the EMSB, accused of mismanagement and dysfunction, was put under trusteeship.  

Despite the intractable problems that the investigators conclude the EMSB administration has brought upon itself, the report highlights how well the teachers and staff at the board's 77 schools and education centres are working for the success of their students.

"The excellent results achieved by EMSB students in the ministerial exams reflect the quality of the work done by frontline workers in contact with elementary and high school students," the report concludes.

The heavily redacted report was published online, in French. It goes into details about the internal struggles that have plagued the board since it was formed by a merger of Catholic and Protestant English boards in 1998.

The fact that so many commissioners have held their seats on the EMSB for so long has contributed to the dysfunction, the probe found. (CBC)

Of the 140 pages, many paragraphs, expense charts and pages are censored by bricks of grey. 

Here are some highlights from parts of the report that weren't redacted.

Balanced budget is goal, not $14M surplus

The report says administrative boards should strive for a balanced budget — avoiding deficits, but ensuring public funds are used to their "full potential." 

Yet the EMSB had significant surpluses over the years, particularly in 2015-2016, when it had a $14.5-million surplus, and 2016-2017, when the surplus was $13.9 million. 

The board described its surpluses in public statements at the time as "exceptional financial management," the probe found.

Expensive business lunches

The probe found a "significant amount of meal claims" that were charged as "lunch meetings." 

For example, in May 2017, the EMSB's director general spent $305 in public funds to take 20 staff members out to lunch.

There is no indication that these meetings could not have been held at the EMSB headquarters, the report says.

Unjustified expenses

The probe found several expense claims were inappropriately approved based on credit card statements rather than receipts. Those statements don't show purchase details, the report says.

For example, one expense of $1,306 — which included a $232 meal for two and $1,019 in accommodations — was approved without a receipt. 

By relying on credit card receipts to reimburse expenses, it's impossible to know if alcohol was purchased, the report says, and it was found that some meals contained alcohol expenses that "do not seem to have always been withdrawn from repayment."

In December 2016 and 2017, chocolate gifts totalling $552 and $639 were given to employees, which the report notes went over the $25-per-person budgetary limit for retirement gifts or festive employee meals.

'Diagnosis': disfunction

The investigators issue a "diagnosis" of the EMSB, concluding it is an underdeveloped, dysfunctional administration that has clearly had problems dating back many years.

"A bad understanding of the roles of commissioners and managers, the politicization of issues and leadership gaps between the different actors involved in positions of responsibility have contributed to the establishment of dysfunctional governance," the report says.

Those in charge of governance appear to be stubbornly reluctant to change when the ministry intervenes, the report says, noting that even with the investigation underway, there was little noticeable change.

A core group of commissioners that has been in place at the board since the EMSB's early days has never left, the report said.

"The history of these individuals has been dragging on for too many years," the report said — and that has led to a culture that is "harmful in a public network."

Taking aim at Mancini

The report takes particular aim at longtime board chair Angela Mancini, who was first elected as commissioner in June 1998, along with her ally, Sylvia Lo Bianco, who served as vice-chair for many years and is still on the board.

Mancini's determination to stay in office despite opposition has opened the door to "ethically questionable methods to encourage her to leave," the report says.

She is excluded from council committees. The council of commissioners voted to significantly reduce her salary, and her proposals are systematically rejected.

"This is not only counterproductive, but demonstrates the lack of respect of the commissioners for the function [of the chair], despite the election by universal suffrage," the report says.

Monitor, punish or suspend

The report concludes that students are not being well served by the EMSB's deep-rooted problems.

"It is clear that this situation does not promote the sound management of the resources of the school network nor the interests of the students."

The report suggests three main options to improve the board's functioning:  introducing measures to monitor and support the existing administration, imposing corrective measures, or suspending the powers of commissioners.

Of the three proposed options, the investigators strongly suggest the last one — suspending the powers of elected commissioners. 

About the Author

Isaac Olson has been a Montreal-area journalist for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Isaac_J_Olson


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