Statement by the English Montreal School Board on the Treasury Board Audit
For almost a year, the CAQ government has been going to extraordinary lengths to discredit the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), accusing us of having poor governance and of mismanaging the awarding and oversight of contracts. It has repeatedly threatened us with trusteeship.
Throughout this ordeal, we have kept our heads down and collaborated with government authorities, while continuing to meet the diverse needs of our students.
On Friday November 1, 2019, the auditors from the Treasury Board submitted their report, and we are pleased that a truer picture has emerged – one which demonstrates the professionalism and integrity of our leadership team.
The Launch of the CAQ Smear Campaign
In January, calling the situation “serious and troubling,” Education Minister Jean-François Roberge launched an investigation into the administration and governance of the EMSB.
A week later Treasury Board President Christian Dubé expanded the investigation by ordering an audit of our contracting processes, stressing in a news release that his goal was “to verify whether the tendering and awarding of our contracts complies with the established rules”. By established rules he was referring specifically to article 27.1 of the Act Respecting Contracting by Public Bodies. The focus of this audit is on contracts awarded from January 1, 2017 to December 31, 2018
Ministry of Education Report
The investigators submitted their report to Minister Roberge in September, and he shared the recommendations and the conclusions with the media on September 13. This week Minister Roberge commented on another leak from the report on a stellar professional development session out of the province and a few expenses including a retirement gift for someone who had dedicated 40 years of service to English public education.
It is upsetting that neither Minister Roberge nor his investigators have shared this report with the EMSB. The school board has never had the opportunity to review the allegations nor to provide feedback and context. Minister Roberge, nonetheless, has cited this report as justification for his threat of placing the EMSB in partial or full trusteeship.
This week the EMSB called upon Minister Roberge to stop leaking tidbits of his report and provide the Board with a full copy immediately - with ample time for us to provide feedback which should then be incorporated into the final report. Minister Roberge and his colleagues should also refrain from commenting further on the report until this process is completed.
On Monday, Premier François Legault said that it is troubling to keep hearing about issues at the EMSB. But let’s be clear, all of the points released by Premier Legault and Minister Roberge were in the original September report. They are deliberately leaking them over time to give the public the sense that “it” is continuing. And still, the EMSB has not been afforded the basic of all evaluation practices – a look at its own report card.
Treasury Board Report
On October 16, the Treasury Board preliminary report was leaked to La Presse – even though each page of the report clearly indicates that the report cannot be rendered public, in whole or in part, without the written consent of the Treasury Board. At least this time we had already seen the draft report. Unfortunately, the leaker forgot, or perhaps strategically chose not to include the EMSB’s four pages of comments, which provided both explanations and context.
Once again the Government raised the spectre of putting our school board in trusteeship. Minister Roberge stated, “Partial trusteeship or full trusteeship, we will decide in the coming weeks”. Minister Dubé asserted, “Mais il y en a assez pour nous pousser à aller plus loin dans ça”. The Minister indicated that he eagerly awaits the comments of the EMSB even though we had submitted them a week earlier and had already discussed them with the Treasury Board auditors. He also refers to the splitting of contracts to keep them below $25,000, which is not raised in the draft report nor in the final one.
The leadership team of the EMSB met with the auditors in early September where they were told the following:
- There is no evidence to suggest that anything had been done (or not done) to deliberately attempt to contravene the law;
- The results of the audit are no different than what auditors would expect to find in any school board audit. (This was also stated in the conclusions of the Ministry of Education’s report that was leaked to the press on September 13);
- The Auditors acknowledged the improvements and new processes that EMSB Management had put in place PRIOR to their audit. (This too was mentioned in the Ministry of Education conclusions leaked on September 13) and welcomed the appointment of our Compliance Officer;
- The procurement office is understaffed in light of the size of the EMSB and the volume of contracts.
The draft audit report has now gone through a second review, and the EMSB has submitted a second set of comments to be included in the final version that was submitted to Minister Dubé on Friday November 1. Since the beginning the EMSB has said that we have nothing to hide, and the final report bears this out. To put it mildly, the revised draft audit report is much less sensational and newsworthy than the earlier draft.
As with most audit reports of this kind, the auditors have identified certain processes that need to be improved, and they recognized that the EMSB already started to implement some changes during the year prior to the audit.
What is clear is that there was no evidence to suggest anything had been done (or not done) to deliberately attempt to contravene the law. In short, there is no smoking gun here.
1. $44 Million in Expenses
Following the first set of comments that the EMSB provided to the Treasury Board on October 9th, the auditors now confirm that the Act Respecting Contracting by Public Bodies does not apply to about two thirds of the contracts in question. In essence, the new orientation of the Treasury Board wipes out more than 31M$ of the 44M$ that they took issue with only one month earlier. These include contracts with six private schools (29.5M$) with unique mandates like Giant Steps, Summit School, Vanguard and the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf and the partnership agreements for vocational training (1.8M$).
The operative word is “unique”. The EMSB enters into agreements with these unique schools because of the specialized services they provide. It is not like a supplier of widgets where you have a host of suppliers. These are the only schools in our territory that offer these specialized services in English. There are no other suppliers to turn to, and they have been accredited by the Ministry of Education.
We also wish to emphasize that these contracts were approved by the EMSB’s Executive Committee in accordance with proper delegated powers to it by the Council of Commissioners.
Finally, the remaining 12.6M$ of contracts, that were not published on the Système électronique d’appel d’offres (SEAO), are mostly expenses with Énergir (formerly known as Gaz Métro) for 5.2M$, and expenses for architecture and engineering services for 5.4M$.
The EMSB entered into a sole source contract with Énergir. Yet there is nothing nefarious here - it is not like we had an option to select a different supplier – it is like Hydro-Québec. We should have posted this contract on the SEAO, and we will do so in the future. But we would also like to point out that many other public institutions do not post their utility contracts.
The leaked preliminary report also stated that we did not always follow proper procedures for the awarding of contracts for architecture and engineering services. Yet all of the firms were pre-qualified through a public tendering process, and the fees are fixed by government decree. Questions were raised in relation to about 2.8M$ in contracts, because they involved individual contracts of more than $100,000. Following the review of its own contracting processes in 2018, the EMSB has been aware of this issue and is now going to tender for these contracts.
2. Other Expenses
The audit raises concerns about expenses related to furniture, repairs and maintenance and information systems, pointing out that firms have received mandates from individual schools, which in the aggregate across our territory “could have been” grouped together. We recognized this issue some time ago, noting that decentralization, staffing shortages and a lack of staff knowledge are the main reasons that these contracts presented significant challenges. That is why in February 2018 – almost a year before the Treasury Board audit, we launched a review of our contracting procedures with the support of external counsel specialized in this field. Then in July 2018 we created the position of Compliance Officer with a mandate to ensure we have the proper mechanisms and controls in place. This position was filled in May 2019 after two job postings.
3. Project Management Firms
During the audit period, the EMSB awarded contracts valued at about 1M$ for external project management firms for construction projects. The project management firms were duly qualified after a public call for tender in 2018. The decision to publicly qualify these firms was taken after a thorough and documented analysis by the Material Resources Department of the EMSB, based on the major increase in our capital improvement budget (about 45M$ annually), the actual structure of the Material Resources Department and the lack of qualified personnel. The EMSB is implementing a new process which includes the publication of all contracts on the SEAO.
The EMSB wishes to point out that it is not the only public institution in Québec to struggle with the application of the rules governing contracts. An independent report submitted on March 8, 2019, by the firm BDO to Minister Dubé as President of the Treasury Board, shows that many, if not the majority, of public bodies are struggling to conform to contracting rules.
Yet, for almost a year Minister Roberge has suggested that he is preparing to put the EMSB in “partial trusteeship or full trusteeship”. 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.
After doing their best to destroy the reputation of our school board and the professionals who work here, we call upon the CAQ government not only to remove the threat of trusteeship but also to exempt us and other English school boards from Bill 40.
We remind you that at 92.4 per cent, the English Montreal School Board's student success rate is the best in the province and only slightly lower than the success rate for private schools. Let us build on this solid foundation and focus on the issues that matter like meeting the needs of our diverse student population, teacher recruitment and improving our facilities.
Michael J. Cohen
Communications and Marketing Specialist
English Montreal School Board
514 483-7200 ext. 7243