Edmonton Catholic School Board trustees are confused about their governance role and have “made it up” as they went along, according to a report released by an observer appointed by Education Minister David Eggen.
After attending more than 40 meetings and doing interviews with both trustees and administrative staff, Donald Cummings concluded that the board requires strong third party mediation to remedy a number of problems.
“Interpersonal conflict is evident among the board members and between trustees and the administration,” Cummings wrote in his report. “It affects every aspect of the current government style, is culturally embedded in the behaviours of the board and is largely (currently) intractable.”
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Cummings found that debate is frequently disrupted by emotion, that there is an inability to professionally address competing viewpoints and there is no meaningful way to resolve deep conflict.
Cummings was appointed in October 2015 to help the board with governance issues as it attempted to draft an LGBTQ policy. At a meeting a month earlier, one trustee cried and shouted over accusations she was homophobic.
In January, board chair Marilynn Bergstra apologized for a decision to email a Calgary bishop’s letter to parents, a decision which was made by board members while she was away.
During a budget meeting on May 31, trustee Cindy Olsen stormed out during a funding debate over the Edmonton Catholic Schools Foundation.
“I am done. I am ready to leave anyway. I know my vote does not mean anything. Three votes here do not mean anything,” Olsen said before she left.
Watch below: Trustee Cindy Olsen storms out of a May 31, 2016 meeting during contentious budget debate
“It is unfortunate that the Edmonton Catholic School Board’s debates of the last year have come to be seen in a negative light,” Board Chair Marilyn Bergstra said in a statement responding to the Cummings report.
“I do believe that we are now on what I see as a very good path since the May meeting.
“We have met with a goal to move forward in a positive and professional manner and as such have developed a positive path forward.”
Scroll down to read Bergstra’s full statement
The board is now required to work with the deputy Minister of Education to improve its governance structure and overall accountability and has until Sept. 30 to submit an implementation timeline.
The education minister does have the power to dissolve any school board, although he has not said that option is being explored.
“I expect the elected members of all school boards across Alberta to act in the best interests of their students,” Eggen said in a statement.
“After governance issues arose within the board of the Edmonton Catholic Separate School District, I appointed an observer, Donald Cummings, who worked with the board until June 30. He has provided a report with recommendations, including having the board report regularly to the Ministry to show they’re improving their practices.
“I will continue to monitor the situation with Edmonton Catholic to ensure they are putting the best interests of students first by working to meet the observer’s recommendations.”
Edmonton Catholic Schools has a budget of more than $480 million, and has an enrolment of more than 40,000 students.
Board Governance Oversight Report
Statement from Board Chair Marilyn Bergstra:
It is unfortunate that the Edmonton Catholic School Board’s debates of the last year have come to be seen in a negative light. Such debate is certainly not unique to the Edmonton Catholic School Board nor limited in politics to Trusteeship. We don’t have to look too far to find contentious behavior between politicians at any level. Am I suggesting this makes it acceptable? Absolutely not. But I would suggest that the Board of Edmonton Catholic Schools has become the poster child for such behavior.
It is true that discussions have been heated at times, particularly as we dealt with what was a very polarizing issue related to stand alone SOGI policy (sexual orientation and gender identity). Adding to the dynamic was pressure from external sources. It is important to acknowledge that debate and disagreements are an essential component of democratic governance. Democracy can be messy but it works.
Our Board has met several times in private to build solidarity between the members. I do believe that we are now on what I see as a very good path since the May meeting. We have met with a goal to move forward in a positive and professional manner and as such have developed a positive path forward that includes the development of a new mission, vision, and strategic plan. We have initiated a complete review of our policies so that this Board has authentic ownership of those policies. Collectively, we wish to develop policy that will promote a governance model that is cutting edge, one that ensures fiscal prudence, adequate oversight, accountability, and transparency with our public. New governance is overdue and the Board is committed to this process.
We are working on a number of fronts on important issues facing our students and that affect long term outcomes and success. I will state that it is unfortunate that what has come to define us negates all the hard work, talents and passion of the members that make up our Board. The public needs to know that we are seven democratically elected individuals that bring a diversity of perspectives. As stated earlier, this Board is committed to working together and has spent time investing in building our collective relationship with one another. Edmonton Catholic Trustees have been leading education on many fronts: public consultations (Special Needs, French Immersion programming), work with the Federal government to garner financial support for our First Nations students, mental, nutritional and physical health, sexual assault prevention, addiction prevention, and innovative partnerships to name just a few. Much of the good work from our Administration stems from Trustee passions, ideas and creativity. For the sake of the students we govern, it is important that our voice be strong and respected.