Quebec appoints auditor to probe management at Montreal's 2 English school boards

Quebec's education minister, Sébastien Proulx, has appointed an auditor to look into the management of Montreal's two English-language school boards amid ethical questions involving the management of both boards.

Education Minister Sébastien Proulx names Michelle Lapointe to oversee examination

The English Montreal School Board is one of two boards that will be under the microscope of the auditor. (Google Maps)

Quebec's education minister has appointed an auditor to look into the management of Montreal's two English-language school boards.

Sébastien Proulx made the announcement at the National Assembly Wednesday morning, amid ethical questions involving management practices at the English Montreal School Board and the Lester B. Pearson School Board.

"There's information transmitted to the ministry that there may be irregular practices," said Proulx. "I say 'may' because I don't have the confirmation."

Proulx did not go into detail about those practices, except to say they "seem to be irregular in the context of the educational experience … programs, the people, the certification of students. We will see what the practices are."

The auditor, Michelle Lapointe, is a retired assistant deputy minister of education. Proulx said there is no due date for her report.

The minister also confirmed that both the province's anti-corruption unit (UPAC) and police are investigating.

Hostile climate

Proulx alluded to the tense climate at the two school boards, and he urged commissioners to take heed.

"I call on the judgment of people, common sense — I call on their sense of responsibility as elected officials," he said.

"You can have debates that are difficult, but you can't find yourself in a situation where the climate degenerates in a continual way."

His remarks come two days after the chair of the Lester B. Pearson board, Suanne Stein Day, acknowledged for the first time that she was found guilty of three breaches of ethics by the board's ethics commissioner, involving a lack of respect shown to board staff.

Stein Day has denied the ethics commissioner's findings have anything to do with a December 2015 letter from staff and former staff of the board's international department, however, three people who signed that letter have since been fired.

In that letter, the 16 people who signed it complained of what they called "slanderous and libelous remarks" and "salacious claims" made by Stein Day about board staff.

While she admitted on CBC Montreal's Daybreak Tuesday she has been "on occasion, short-tempered," Stein Day said she doesn't believe she breached the board's code of ethics.

The board's commissioners have unanimously voted to support Stein Day, however, members of the public and former staff have denounced them for that, some calling for Stein Day to resign over the ethics breaches. 

"The board has lost its moral compass," said Jim Wilson, former president of the Pearson teachers' union, on Monday.

Pearson board 'aware of irregularities'

In a brief statement on Wednesday afternoon, the Lester B. Pearson board said it welcomed the Education Ministry's assistance and "looks forward to working with the auditor" on concerns which it said the board itself had raised with the ministry and with UPAC, regarding irregularities in its international education department.

"The school board has taken the necessary steps to rectify the irregularities and ensure they do not occur again," the statement said. "Included in the actions were the severing of employment ties and restructuring of the international department."

Audit underway at EMSB

​At the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), a team of auditors has already been assigned by the Education Ministry to look into the board's books to examine extra costs tacked onto recent renovation contracts.

The board of commissioners had been asked to approve the change orders months after the renovations were done.

"There were just too many at one time, and I questioned it," commissioner Agostino Cannavino told CBC last week. "I raised the flag, saying, 'Let's look into it, and if they are legitimate – and I'm sure they are – then let's put in a process where we can minimize those.'"

The ministry said it was also sending an accompagnateur, or guide, to the board to help it develop better practices and avoid incurring extra costs when construction contracts are approved.

The EMSB issued a statement on Wednesday, stating that the auditor would have the school board's full co-operation. 

"We have only just learned about the government's intentions," the board's chair, Angela Mancini, said in the statement.

"While this has caught us completely by surprise, I have asked administration to make sure the auditor has access to any information she deems necessary to complete her work."

Allegations of nepotism, bullying 

EMSB senior administrators have also complained to commissioners about being treated with a lack of respect.

In a letter to commissioners dated Nov. 16, signed by all 12 EMSB directors, the administrators complain of being subjected to negative comments and attacks, as well as a lack of support and recognition for their work.

"In fact, similar demonstrations of inappropriate conduct, words or gestures from our own employees would not be tolerated by the board," the letter states. 

Then just last week, Cannavino and commissioner Julien Feldman, who are not part of Mancini's coalition, sent a letter to Proulx, urging the minister to place the EMSB under temporary trusteeship.

They cite a growing rift between, on one side, the chair, vice-chair and chair of the EMSB's governance and ethics committee, and on the other side, a "united team" of senior administrators, over the candidacy of the vice-chair's brother-in-law for a management position at the board.

They say senior administrators rejected the EMSB selection committee's candidate — a parent commissioner and brother-in-law of vice-chair Sylvia LoBianco — because he didn't meet the minimal qualifications for the job and because of concerns over nepotism. 

"The conflict not only raises serious issues of governance and conflict of interest," the letter reads, "but it is also apparent that efforts are being made by elected officials to intimidate senior administrators, which has paralyzed and destabilized the School Board's administration."

with files from Salimah Shivji