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'Get back to basics,' Ontario education minister urges Ottawa school board

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Ontario's education minister is telling Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) trustees to get "back to basics" after internal battles between trustees came to a head in a code of conduct vote Monday night.

Trustees held a special meeting to decide whether text messages trustee Nili Kaplan-Myrth sent to fellow trustee Donna Dickson amounted to a breach of the board's code of conduct. Dickson alleged in a formal complaint that Kaplan-Myrth became "extremely insensitive, insulting and disrespectful" and that comments Kaplan-Myrth made about other trustees were "defamatory and disrespectful" during conversations last fall over whether Dickson would support Kaplan-Myrth's motion to reinstate a mask mandate at OCDSB schools. 

It follows several disruptions and protests of OCDSB meetings in recent months over issues including masks and transgender policy.

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Education Minister Stephen Lecce urged the board to focus on the 'Three Rs'.

"We share the concerns of many parents troubled by the behaviour at, and leading up to, last night’s board meeting. Our government urges the board to focus on the academic achievement of students and get back to basics of what matters most: reading, writing and math," Lecce said. "In one of Ontario's largest school boards, time and resources should be focused on student achievement and wellbeing, not on debates stemming from actions that undermine public confidence."

The vote on whether to declare that Kaplan-Myrth breached the code of conduct failed by a slim margin, with seven trustees voting in favour and four choosing to abstain. The motion needed eight supporters to pass. Kaplan-Myrth did not vote, per board rules.

Trustees at odds

The school board said that efforts to mediate the matter between Dickson and Kaplan-Myrth were unsuccessful and a formal review policy was initiated. An independent third party investigator was retained to review the facts and prepare a report. That led the vote on whether a code of conduct breach occurred, which ultimately failed.

After the meeting, Dickson called Kaplan-Myrth a bully.

"What message are we sending to our students? It's okay to bully and call it something else?" she told reporters.

Kaplan-Myrth claimed the attempted to censure her was a political attack.

"This has been a character assassination from the beginning," she said Monday night. "This has been part of an organized attack on me right from the very beginning of my tenure here. There have been people who have gone out of their way to try to attack me."

Kaplan-Myrth has been the target of frequent violent and antisemitic attacks dating back to before she ran for trustee, many of which she highlights on social media. 

Dickson said in her complaint that she recognized Kaplan-Myrth feels embattled, but said she should have recognized that her comments were hurtful. Dickson demanded a public apology.

The complaint

Dickson made the complaint against Kaplan-Myrth, saying the text messages, in which Kaplan-Myrth sought Dickson's support for the mask mandate, were "at first reasonable" but later became "extremely insensitive, insulting and disrespectful." Dickson also claimed comments Kaplan-Myrth made about other trustees were "defamatory and disrespectful."

Dickson said she brought the text messages to the attention of board chair Lyra Evans multiple times, including in the immediate aftermath, but that nothing was done. She filed a formal complaint in February after Evans said Kaplan-Myrth did not believe an apology was warranted.

According to a third-party report by Michael Maynard, an investigator with ADR Chambers, Kaplan-Myrth sent Dickson a message on Nov. 12, 2022, seeking support for her motion to mandate masks. Dickson initially said she would support Kaplan-Myrth's motion, but a week later, on Nov. 19, Dickson replied to Kaplan-Myrth to say she changed her mind and would not support a mandate.

"My final decision was influenced by the wishes of my constituents. They have overwhelming (sic) indicated that they do not want a mask mandate. As their representative, I feel that I must respect their wishes," Dickson wrote.

Kaplan-Myrth replied to say that Dickson was hearing only from "angry people" and not the people in support of her motion.

"The anti-mask crowd has mobilized to send out letters. Many of those people aren't even Ottawa families. This disproportionately affects the very people whose families are poor, who cannot miss work or school, who are most likely to end up in hospital. I beg you to reconsider," Kaplan-Myrth's text said.

Kaplan-Myrth then named three trustees, Lynn Scott, Donna Blackburn, and Matthew Lee, whom she accused of not caring if children get sick. These are the comments Dickson cited as defamatory.

Text messages sent by OCDSB trustee Nili Kaplan-Myrth to fellow trustee Donna Dickson in November 2022, as submitted by Dickson in a formal complaint. (OCDSB/supplied)

Blackburn said after the meeting Monday night that she was disturbed by those comments.

"For me, to have been personally attacked about my commitment to equity was disturbing, as an out lesbian, as a woman who proudly raised a Black daughter," she said. "Trustee Scott is an incredible woman and trustee Matthew Lee, who I don't know yet that well, he's a good man who is committed to the betterment of our kids and their families."

The vote on the mask motion on Nov. 22 didn't proceed because the meeting was frequently interrupted by protesters opposed to mask mandates in schools. The next day, Kaplan-Myrth texted Dickson to say the organizers of the protest were white supremacists and claimed one woman, whose name was anonymized in the report for privacy, was a cofounder of a "transphobic anti-vaxxer racist organization."

"The people who organized letter writing campaigns do not care about poor families or anyone else that gets sick. I am very sad that you said a week ago that you would support a mandate and now you do not," she said.

During the reconvened special meeting on Nov. 24, Kaplan-Myrth texted Dickson again while the meeting was taking place, telling her to abstain from the vote.

"Don't vote with white supremacists," she said.

Dickson replied, "Leave me alone." To which Kaplan-Myrth replied, "Don't talk to me about equity then."

A text message exchange between OCDSB trustee Nili Kaplan-Myrth (left side) and OCDSB trustee Donna Dickson (right side) sent during a board meeting Nov. 24, 2022. Submitted as evidence by Dickson in a formal code of conduct complaint against Kaplan-Myrth. (OCDSB/supplied)

Ultimately, the vote failed and masks were not made mandatory.

Dickson, in her complaint, said the insinuation that her opposition to a mask mandate would be voting in support of white supremacists to be of "such an egregious nature" that she could not let it pass.

"No reasonable person in a position of authority that had a sense of propriety would accused (sic) a peer of this, in writing, nevermind a Black person," Dickson wrote.

Kaplan-Myrth issued a letter of apology to Dickson after the formal complaint was filed, according to Maynard's report, but Dickson felt it was lacking in contrition and came too late.

Kaplan-Myrth told reporters Monday she never meant to insinuate that Dickson was a white supremacist, but that the people who disrupted the board meeting on Nov. 22 were.

"In the very meeting in which we had to clear the room because we were under siege, I did not have the opportunity to turn to my colleague, who I valued and respected, to say what is going on. I simply texted her and said these are not our constituents, these are white supremacists," she said.

"Not everyone in the room was a white supremacist, surely, but the people sending the anti-mask, anti-vax death threats to me, which have not stopped in the last nine months, are associated with white supremacy. That is what I was saying and I stand by it."

Trustees question how to move on

Dickson told reporters Monday night that there are several important decisions facing the board, but she's not sure how to move forward.

"How are we going to be fair and just to our students if we can't make a fair and just decision?" she asked. "I'm here for the betterment of all students… how do we do that when you have 12 people that can't get on the same page? Everybody has their own political agenda… this is the problem that everyone needs to look at."

Blackburn said there's always a level of dysfunction on the school board, but this latest slate of trustees is "a bit above and beyond."

"I don't think this board will ever heal, to be quite honest," Blackburn said. "I'd like to be optimistic that we can heal, but I don't think it's possible." 

In a statement sent Tuesday afternoon, Dickson said she accepts the outcome of the vote.

"It is clear that a strong majority of the Board is in agreement that Trustee Kaplan-Myrth's actions were unbecoming of a school board trustee," she wrote. "Along with my colleagues on the Board, I will continue to hold Trustee Kaplan-Myrth and all Board administrators accountable as we continue into the new school year."

Kaplan-Myrth said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that she was happy the vote went in her favour, but said "this is not a victory."

"We live in a dangerous time. I have a Charter right to point out that we were bombarded by white supremacists, to express political opinion, and to lobby colleagues. It isn’t safe to be a Jew in politics in Ottawa," she wrote.

She posted another example of an antisemitic email sent to her Tuesday morning.

"The threats continue."

Province has the power to intervene

The provincial government has the power to intervene and install a supervisor over local school boards.

In 2020, Lecce appointed a supervisor over the Peel District School Board because of issues of anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. The elected trustees only regained control of the school board this past January. 

The province did not indicate in its statement Tuesday whether it would step in and appoint a supervisor to the OCDSB, like it did with Peel, but the president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association said she doesn't believe it's necessary.

"There are disagreements and we all just have different ways that we have to work through that process," Cathy Abraham said. "This is not the only thing that's happening at that school board, or any school board who may find themselves in this situation. There's lots of work taking place. Students, staff, trustees, everybody are doing work for student achievement and wellbeing. This is a blip in time and they've already dealt with this and will find a way to move on."

In an update on its website concerning Monday's special meeting on the code of conduct vote, the OCDSB said the matter is now concluded.

--With files from CTV News Ottawa's Katie Griffin and Shaun Vardon.

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