Alberta education minister broke privacy rules with mass email to teachers

Jeff Johnson, Minister of Education.
Jeff Johnson, Minister of Education. Global News

EDMONTON – Alberta’s privacy commissioner has rebuked Education Minister Jeff Johnson for contacting thousands of teachers by collecting their personal email addresses.

Privacy commissioner Jill Clayton announced Thursday that while Johnson was OK using the business emails of teachers, personal email is out of bounds.

“The heart of this issue is transparency” said Clayton in a news release.

“Even if you have authority to share information, it is important to be up front with people as to why their personal information is being collected and how it will be used.”

The office, among other recommendations, is urging Johnson’s department to purge the personal emails from its system.

Johnson, in an email, said he will comply, but said there needs to be a middle ground.

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“As the ministry is both the registrar and regulator of the teaching profession we will work with the privacy commissioner to ensure we develop a method of communicating on professional matters that reaches as many teachers as possible while also respecting the commissioner’s ruling,” said Johnson.

“I believe teachers deserve to hear from me directly about issues and developments that may affect them.”

Johnson said the department will continue to communicate with teachers through email.

He said many teachers aren’t provided with a work email account and have to use their personal email address in a professional capacity.

The investigation was launched after Johnson sent an email to more than 34,000 teachers in February.

Written in a conversational style and signed “Jeff,” the email urged greater co-operation and exchange of ideas between the ministry and teachers on everything from curriculum design to contract talks with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

“We need to have open communications and ensure you have access to accurate information,” said Johnson in the email.

“You will be hearing from me on a regular basis.”

Clayton’s investigation found that while the department can contact teachers to collect information for “evaluative analyses” on education, the email failed to do so.

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“The email does not … explicitly ask teachers to ‘send in their ideas for improving education’ nor does it make any mention of using information provided by teachers to conduct statistical, evaluative, or financial analyses or forecasting related to teachers,” said the report.

“In fact, the minister does not refer to any purpose for which he is requesting that teachers contact him other than to state ‘we need to have a more open and transparent way to communicate.”‘

The privacy ruling is another thorn in what has become a prickly relationship between Johnson and the teachers’ association.

In May, association president Mark Ramsankar said task force recommendations on education reform now under consideration by Johnson constitute a “direct assault” on the profession.

The Task Force for Teaching Excellence report says the association is in a conflict of interest over the dual role of protecting teachers while at the same time being responsible for enforcing teacher discipline.

The report says the Education Department should handle allegations of teacher misconduct. It also recommends that school principals take over teacher evaluations with an eye to teachers effectively having to re-certify every five years.

Tensions went up another notch earlier this week when Johnson ordered school boards to deliver to him by July 11 documentation going back a decade relating to teacher discipline and complaints.

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The association has asked Clayton’s office to weigh in on this issue, too, saying a pell-mell race to deliver information to Johnson by next week could see private information accidentally spill into the public realm.

NDP critic David Eggen said Thursday’s rebuke confirms that Johnson abused his authority and is doing an end run around the teachers’ association.

“(It) shows a lack of respect for the teachers and a lack of respect for the law,” said Eggen.

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