The chairman of Canada’s largest school board directed tens of thousands of dollars intended for a Toronto elementary school to his own charity, according to confidential internal reviews of spending during his tenure as principal.
The spending reviews, obtained by The Globe and Mail, are part of a series of internal investigations spanning four years that raise questions about Chris Bolton’s dual roles at a school and a charity before he was elected a trustee of the Toronto District School Board, and conducted by the organization he now chairs. Nearly a decade later, the board continues to grapple with governance concerns arising from Mr. Bolton’s ties to this charity, which is now run by his live-in partner.
None of the reports have been made public and some of them are labelled as drafts. However, their findings are summarized in a 2005 letter, addressed to Mr. Bolton and marked final, that accuses him of a breach of fiduciary duty and lays out a series of allegations that include “misappropriations of funds” and a lack of transparency. No action has been taken by the board.
Mr. Bolton defended his time as principal at Ryerson Community School, saying the school received donations in recognition of its track record for helping students, many of whom came from low-income families. “The money was used for good works in an inner-city community,” he told The Globe.
According to the letter, Mr. Bolton directed to his charity a $50,000 grant that Ryerson received from the Atkinson Foundation. The non-profit foundation, created by former Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson, stipulated that the money was to be used exclusively for the benefit of the school. According to the letter, almost half went to non-Ryerson recipients.
According to the letter, Mr. Bolton also directed to his charity $10,000 from actor Denzel Washington, who made the donation to Ryerson after using school property during the filming of John Q. The money was used to create a bursary for students at Ryerson, but was controlled by Mr. Bolton’s charity.
A $5,000 donation to Ryerson from a group called the Unum Foundation was also directed to the charity, according to the letter.
In the letter to Mr. Bolton, dated Feb. 25, 2005, he is asked to repay “unauthorized commissions” totalling $3,250 – consisting of a 5-per-cent fee paid to his charity, Friends of Community Schools, for managing the donations.
According to another report, Mr. Bolton also used his charity to purchase a bus, dubbed “White Lightning,” which once got stuck on a highway while on a field trip.
The investigations date back to 2001, when Mr. Bolton was principal of Ryerson Community School, an elementary school in downtown Toronto. He also ran a charitable organization he founded – described in one document as Mr. Bolton’s “alter ego” – and diverted donations for Ryerson to his charity, one report says, allowing him to disperse the funds without scrutiny from the school board.
The Globe has pieced together this chapter of Mr. Bolton’s three-decade career as a teacher and principal, based on documents and interviews with more than a dozen sources familiar with the situation. One report, prepared in 2005 by lawyers at Keel Cottrelle at the request of senior staff at the TDSB, follows an internal school-board report four years earlier, also obtained by The Globe.
The report accuses Mr. Bolton of putting his own interests ahead of the school’s. “Suspected transgressions,” it says, involved “the misuse and possible misappropriation of school board funds and property.”
In response to The Globe, Mr. Bolton said he does not recall receiving the letter from Keel Cottrelle that gave him 60 days to remit all funds “retained and misapplied” by his charity.
It is not clear how the matter was resolved. The Atkinson Foundation did not receive a formal report after it requested details of how the award was used, executive director Colette Murphy told The Globe. The foundation gave the award to Friends of Community Schools, she said, because money typically goes to registered charities. The foundation was aware that Mr. Bolton controlled the charity, Ms. Murphy said.
Several trustees told The Globe they never saw the reports on Mr. Bolton. Sheila Ward, a TDSB trustee and chair at the time, said she did not share the Keel Cottrelle report because there was no proof of any wrongdoing: “The Atkinson grant had nothing to do with us,” she said. “The TDSB had no jurisdiction over it.”
Since Mr. Bolton was elected a trustee in 2003, he has risen through the political ranks, becoming vice-chair in December, 2008, and chair two years later.
During his time as a trustee, his involvement with his charity has remained controversial. Friends of Community Schools received $56,000 in provincial funding dispersed by the TDSB to run a summer camp for 225 children at Ryerson in the summer of 2009. The Globe has reported that Mr. Bolton did not declare his potential conflict of interest and the board has since passed a motion calling for stricter governance rules.
The TDSB began investigating Mr. Bolton in January, 2001, just days before he retired from Ryerson. Mr. Bolton blamed Georgina Balascas, a superintendent at the time, for “instigating” the review.
Ms. Balascas told The Globe: “I just wanted to get answers and clarification around some of the issues that had come to my attention.”
One of the issues was the big white school bus. Not only had Mr. Bolton purchased it without getting approval from the TDSB, she said, it was a violation of the board’s rules for a school to own a bus.
The Keel Cottrelle report says it was the understanding of a former Ryerson secretary that Mr. Bolton bought the bus through his charity to avoid insuring it through the TDSB.
Mr. Bolton said no money changed hands. A transit company in Muskoka gave him the bus in exchange for a tax credit, he told The Globe. Mr. Bolton charged teachers a lower rate than what they paid to use the TDSB’s buses, the report says. Teachers refused to use the bus after it got stuck on a highway during a field trip, according to the report.
The internal TDSB review also examined the relationship between Ryerson and Mr. Bolton’s charity but was unable to account for funding from donations.
Mr. Bolton also said he was not obligated to provide the TDSB with an accounting of the Atkinson money, because his charity received the funds on behalf of Ryerson.
The Atkinson grant was by far the single largest donation to Ryerson. The school received the Ruth Atkinson Hindmarsh Award in October, 1999 in recognition of its highly innovative and effective work with children. At a standing-room only ceremony in the school’s gymnasium, Mr. Bolton was on the stage with Terry Ross, his live-in partner. Much to the surprise of some in the audience, Mr. Ross, treasurer of the charity at the time, accepted the Atkinson cheque.
The TDSB report says the school board could not determine how proceeds of $1,500 from the sale of the bus were recorded. Mr. Bolton denied that he sold the bus, saying he drove it to a wrecker in Toronto and handed him the keys. Ryerson staff gave Mr. Bolton a caricature of him with the bus, which is hanging in his TDSB office.
Where donations for Ryerson school went
While Mr. Bolton was principal of Ryerson Community School, his charity received the following donations that were intended for use by the school, according to documents obtained by The Globe:
- $50,000 grant from the Atkinson Foundation
- $10,000 bursary donated by Denzel Washington
- $5,000 grant from the Unum Foundation
Instead of having these funds go directly to the TDSB or Ryerson, they were directed to Mr. Bolton’s charity, Friends of Community Schools, which handled the money.
The charity used $20,500 of the Atkinson grant to fund other community organizations instead of Ryerson, which was the intended recipient of the grant, according to documents.
Mr. Bolton’s charity deducted a 5-per-cent administrative fee from the donations, according to the report. The report says these costs would not have been charged and more money would have been available to Ryerson if the funds had initially gone to the TDSB. The TDSB became a registered charity in January, 1998.
Mr. Bolton used his charity to procure a bus, which was then used by teachers at a fee lower than what TDSB would charge. The bus, which had mechanical problems, was owned by 1247550 Ontario Limited, which was controlled by Mr. Bolton.