The English Montreal School Board is under investigation by the Quebec government for alleged mismanagement and ethical violations.

The EMSB's management has long been a cause for concern, most recently as the school's commissioners formally rebuked chair Angela Mancini in December.

Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge said Wednesday that he is launching an inquiry, necessary so that the "outstanding work" done by the students of the school board is not undermined by "very problematic" issues.

"These allegations are troubling and serious. We must take action," said Roberge. “In the best interest of the EMSB and, of course, its students, the parents, and its staff, and the community, it's our duty to act quickly.”

"Launching an inquiry is not something I take lightly."

The complaints against the board include ethical violations, the awarding of multiple contracts worth more than $100,000 without a proper bidding process, and other problems.

“Inappropriate use of school board assets in exchange for favours benefiting administrative staff,” said Roberge.

At a special meeting held Wednesday, EMSB vice-chairman Joe Ortona said the investigation does not help the board's image, and urged people to wait for the results of the investigation.

"The minister said he was aware of allegations. And that's what they are: allegations. He didn't say that they're proven. He didn't say there's any supporting evidence or anything corroborating these allegations. He said that he's aware of allegations and he wants to investigate those allegations," said Ortona.

"I'm not going to make a baseless accusation myself and say that the minister's acting in bad faith or doing this to further a political agenda. This is what the minister says he's aware of and he wants to have an inquiry and we're going to co-operate fully as we've done in the past."

Chair Angela Mancini was not at Wednesday's meeting, and has not attended an EMSB meeting since October.

In a statement, the EMSB says it is surprised by the latest investigation because the previous Liberal government audited the board and it was never informed of any irregularities.

“We have absolutely nothing to hide, and the ministry will have the full cooperation of the EMSB's governance and management in the completion of their work," the statement read.

In a statement of its own, the Quebec English School Boards Association pointed to the EMSB's student success rate of 89 per cent but added:

"The situation at the school board is of concern. An examination by a qualified outside party will help all concerned to adopt any corrective measures if necessary," it read.

The ministry's report is due Sept. 10.


Ethics complaint

The board's chief administrative officer filed an ethics complaint against Mancini last year, saying she used abusive and foul language and tried to silence colleagues at meetings.

In 2017 assistant director Angelo Marino resigned, saying he could no longer tolerate Mancini's intimidating behaviour.

This week, Mancini was found guilty and has been ordered to apologize to the board’s top administrator.

“There has been talk about bullying, heated exchanges, distasteful comments and… the work of the Council of Commissioners frequently paralyzed by conflict,” said Roberge.

Meanwhile in 2016 the province's anti-corruption squad, UPAC, began an investigation into the EMSB's finances and the EMSB's international vocational school.

One anonymous staffer told investigators that teachers were under orders not to fail anyone, even if students struggled with courses because they lacked even rudimentary language skills.

The ministry could not say if UPAC’s investigation is ongoing because it operates independently.

“Our inquiry doesn't interfere with UPAC, and we had the assurance that we can go forward,” said Roberge.

Possible prelude to abolishing school boards

The CAQ has promised to abolish school boards and transform them into regional service centres, a move that is opposed by many in the English-speaking community.

“Will the minister find that there's mismanagement and justify his plans to abolish school boards? That's the question. The deadline for his report is September which is around the time that we hear he's going to drop legislation for service centres,” said Julien Feldman, EMSB opposition commissioner.

Roberge said the investigation into the EMSB should not be seen as an attempt to strengthen the government's argument in favour of scrapping school boards.

"Launching that inquiry and transforming school boards into service centres are two totally separate issues. It's very important to say so because those are separate issues," said Roberge.

"It's important for me to guarantee to all the citizens and the people of Quebec that each dollar they give to the system is well-administrated, and that they can count on the school boards, both French and English, [being] governed in an ethical way."