Trustees at Canada’s largest school board are looking for a way out of a controversial agreement with the Chinese government that they were never given an opportunity to vet or approve.

Toronto District School Board trustees have asked staff whether the Confucius Institute agreement has an exit clause, what the penalties are for dissolving it, and whether the school district would be open to charges of negotiating in bad faith if it pulled the plug, according to notes from a dinner meeting for trustees obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Trustees passed a motion at their regular public meeting last month to delay the rollout of the culture programs subsidized and controlled by Beijing planned for elementary students this September so they can gather information on the Confucius Institute agreement. But several trustees confirmed to The Globe that the notes, consisting of 31 questions trustees posed to staff, reveal that they are looking at severing the TDSB’s ties with the institute.

The controversy surrounding the Confucius Institute has highlighted the need for formal policies governing the school board’s long-term partnerships with international organizations.

Trustees say there is a pressing need for more stringent policies on contracts, especially as the TDSB increasingly focuses on attracting more fee-paying international students.

“This is part of the learning experience that our board is going through, and we’re becoming aware of where the problems might lie,” trustee Pamela Gough said in an interview.

It is unclear how quickly staff will answer the 31 questions, which were compiled before last month’s dinner meeting.

“As a group, I believe that we’re interested in understanding the details of the agreement and the implications of the agreement before we decide whether it’s good for our students,” trustee Howard Goodman said in an interview.

Former TDSB chair Chris Bolton was the driving force behind the school board’s recently opened Confucius Institute. He resigned last month, five months before his term as a trustee was to expire, leaving trustees to deal with the fallout from the venture, including hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from worried parents.

Trustees found themselves facing more questions than answers about an agreement unilaterally negotiated by Mr. Bolton.

There is no explicit rule that school-board trustees must approve all agreements. But the deal with the Chinese government reflects the lack of openness at the board during Mr. Bolton’s time as chairman, trustees said.

The new chair, Mari Rutka, has pledged to make the TDSB more transparent, and said trustees will discuss introducing new policies governing international agreements at their next full board meeting, in late October.

“If we are going to take a systematic look at this kind of thing,” Ms. Rutka said in an interview, “it will take more than one meeting.”

The Globe has reported that trustees were not told about key aspects of the Confucius Institute, including the fact that instructors are trained to self-censor on topics that are politically taboo in China.

Mr. Bolton informed trustees at a board meeting in May, 2012, that a formal signing ceremony had taken place in Ottawa the previous month with a delegation led by him and the head of the Chinese Language Council International, a state agency known as Hanban. Before that, the only information trustees received was in sparse briefing notes saying the TDSB had signed an agreement that the board’s lawyers had reviewed.

The TDSB officially opened its Confucius Institute in May, just before the American Association of University Professors became the latest group of educators to raise alarms about censorship. In Canada, McMaster University and Sherbrooke University have closed their institutes.

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Jul. 17 2014, 3:00 AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Jul. 17 2014, 3:00 AM EDT