Quebec places EMSB in trusteeship, names former MP Marlene Jennings as administrator

MONTREAL – The Quebec government has put the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) under trusteeship, naming former Liberal MP Marlene Jennings as its administrator.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge made the announcement Wednesday afternoon following the recommendations of two reports, one by the treasury board and another by the education ministry.

The government took action as a result of the "appalling situation" education ministry investigators observed at the EMSB, according to Roberge.

"The decision to place the English Montreal School Board under trusteeship was not made lightly," he said.

"This is an exceptional measure taken under exceptional circumstances. Unlike the previous government, we cannot turn a blind eye to this situation, which has gone on for far too long.

"The students, their parents and all the school staff deserve good governance and an effective administration characterized by respect and ethical conduct," Roberge added. "The main task of Ms. Jennings will be to restore the trust of the entire community in the EMSB."

In the meantime, the reports have been transferred to the government's anti-corruption unit, UPAC, to investigate whether the irregularities are criminal.

'Smear campaign': EMSB

In a statement Wednesday, the EMSB called the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government’s move “the launch of the CAQ smear campaign.”

The English board claims the CAQ has gone to “extraordinary lengths to discredit the EMSB, accusing us of having poor governance and of mismanaging the awarding and oversight of contracts.”

“The school board has never had the opportunity to review the allegations, nor to provide feedback and context,” it stated.

Roberge scoffed at the accusation.

"Oh come on, I think it's the third report within nine years… saying that the EMSB is dysfunctional. We are only following the recommendation of the investigators," he said.

He insisted the decision is not political or part of a "hidden agenda."

"It's just what a good government should to, not to fear and to go forward with the right decision when you have to do so," he said.

A spokesperson for the EMSB Parents Committee (EMSBPC) told CTV News the group is concerned that parents could lose their voice through the process of trusteeship. As it stands, there are four elected parent officials on the board's council of commissioners.

An emergency executive committee meeting is planned for Wednesday night, with another larger meeting planned for Thursday.

Lawsuits can continue: Roberge

Roberge clarified that the EMSB is under partial trusteeship, and that while Jennings will oversee decision-making, commissioners will still have the legal powers to pursue court proceedings, including challenges to the province's secularism law and a battle over school transfers into the French system.

Months of uncertainty

The decision to go to trusteeship came after two damning reports shone a less-than-flattering light on the board, which has been shaken by internal conflict and management debates over the last few years.

The EMSB, Quebec’s largest English-language board, has been accused of mismanaging expenses from its $350 million budget, including buying alcohol and jewelry.

It has also been accused of breaking the rules when it comes to awarding contracts.

“We can’t help but wonder if the unjustified attacks on the EMSB have been motivated by the CAQ government’s effort to justify abolishing school boards in favour of service centres and in retaliation for our court challenges related to Bill 21 and the transfer of our schools to the French sector,” the EMSB argued.

It is accusing the education minister and Premier François Legault of leaking sections of the report as part of a "concerted campaign to discredit" the board for "political reasons."

Initial term of six months

The board will be placed under trusteeship for an initial six months, at which point the government can renew one time for another six months.

"It's possible, it's an option and it's written within the law," said Roberge. "I can't say right here and now. I have to give some time to Ms. Jennings."

Jennings chosen for her ties to the community

Roberge says he hoped Jennings's appointment will help ease tensions between the CAQ and the anglophone community.

"She's fully confident, she has great experience in managing great organizations and she's well known within the English-speaking community," he said.

Jennings is a retired lawyer who served as a Liberal Member of Parliament in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine from 1997 to 2011, and has served as vice-president of the board of directors of the regional health board, the CIUSSS Centre-Sud.

"I think that she has the confidence of the English-speaking community. I think it will help to calm down and help restore confidence in the institution, and this is important for me," said Roberge.