After leaving her position last year, the former chair of the Limestone District School Board is speaking out, saying she believes the board is run through what could be seen as a “culture of fear” — one that leaves trustees unable to stand up for causes they believe in.
Paula Murray stepped down as chair of the board before the 2018 municipal election after over a decade of serving on the board as a trustee. Her candid comments come just weeks after a rookie Limestone District School Board trustee, Robin Hutcheon, was privately censured by the board.
The 2018 municipal election was unusually lively for Limestone District School Board trustee candidates after a group of concerned citizens, tagging themselves under the #TRUSTee banner, campaigned against the former board and its reported lack of transparency.
Seven candidates, including Hutcheon — who, before she ran for trustee, headed a group called Rural Schools Matter that fought against closures of rural schools in the district she now represents, the Townships of Stone Mills and Loyalist — ran under the #TRUSTee banner.
They all campaigned on three pillars: “education first, accountability to the electorate and commitment to the community.”
The group rallied around what they said were frequent private sessions held by the board where decisions were made away from the public eye.
It was in private session that a new trustee was appointed in June 2018 after the death of longtime trustee David Jackson, a decision that angered some parents who felt they were not consulted on the replacement.
It was also in private session that Tom Mahoney, a former trustee, was censured three times before he was banned from attending any more meetings.
Board rules stipulate that it must go into private session when matters involving personal information are discussed, something the board has stood by as the reason for holding closed meetings.
From the #TRUSTee group, five were elected, including Hutcheon.
Now, after a year of staying quiet on the subject, Murray has gone public with her concerns, saying she worries she may have contributed to a culture at the board that has undercut the ability of trustees to represent their constituents.
“Perhaps that might have been the doing of my colleagues and myself years and years ago as to why these mechanisms have been tightened down,” Murray said.
Murray says she recently wrote to the board as a concerned parent, asking them to consider the importance of nine focus programs that were being cut from the curriculum. One of those programs helped her daughter get into a post-secondary creative arts program.
She says she was “floored” by the response she got from the board.
“I received acknowledgement of my email and that was it. I got nothing else,” Murray told Global News in an interview.
“Then I found out shortly after that nine focus programs were cut along with another alternative education program.“
The school board told Global News that the programs Murray was referring to were cut due to poor enrolment.
In the end, Murray felt most upset by the response of the board that she used to lead.
“I can say that I was disappointed in the lack of communication and not being able to participate in a conversation to help save those programs that have already been eliminated,” she said.
Murray says she first contacted her trustee but received a response from the chair of the board, Suzanne Ruttan, acknowledging her concern. She says her letter was ultimately answered by the director of education, Debrah Rantz, who reportedly told Murray if she had an operational concern she should speak directly to her child’s principal.
Murray says she feels the board has muzzled its trustees so that they do not feel able to fight for issues they believe in.
“It’s also important to remember that they are publicly elected. And from the concerns that I’m hearing in my own community, they’re not being heard.”
She says that she, and others she’s spoken to, feel like there is no longer a relationship between citizens and trustees.
“When I write my city councillor, my city councillor writes me back. My city councillor invites me up for coffee … I do not get that level of communication from the Limestone District School Board.”
In fact, it was for getting involved in an “operational issue” that Hutcheon was censured. There are very few details as to why Hutcheon was censured since it happened in private session and the board has refused to give any details of her alleged infraction.
“Trustee Hutcheon got involved in a matter beyond the governance role,” Ruttan told Global News for a previous story. “We are governors, we are not education experts.”
In her first interview since the censure, Hutcheon told Global News she won’t go into detail about her censure, and also that she won’t argue with why she was reprimanded.
“I’m willing to accept that that’s how the board feels about my actions, and that’s OK,” Hutcheon said.
In fact, this is the first interview Global News has been able to secure with a sitting trustee on any matter since the 2018 election. This is due to a board policy that only the chair of the board is allowed to speak to the media.
Global News tried calling each of the nine Limestone trustees to ask if they felt they were being kept from speaking to their constituents; other than Hutcheon and Ruttan, only three responded.
Karen McGregor, who represents the Townships of Central Frontenac, Addington Highlands and North Frontenac, and Tom Gingrich, who represents Kingscourt-Rideau and King’s Town, both referred Global News to the school board’s chair, Ruttan, saying they were not allowed to speak to the media.
McGregor was audibly upset by the request for comment and said that trustees are not allowed to speak to the media due to provincially mandated rules outlined by the Ontario Public School Board Association (OPSBA).
When asked if the board had the choice to change this policy, McGregor said no.
McGregor was referring to a clause in the OPSBA template code of conduct, which the association says is not provincially mandated but simply suggested.
The rule that was adopted by the Limestone District School Board and many other school boards across the province says the chair of the board “is the spokesperson to the public on behalf of the board, unless otherwise determined by the board.”
The clause also prohibits any trustee from speaking “on behalf of the board” unless authorized to do so.
The policy ends by saying that “when individual trustees express their opinions in public, they must make it clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the board.”
When asked about the policy, Ruttan said: “In Limestone, trustees of the board have agreed that the chair is the spokesperson.”
In a statement from the OPSBA, a spokesperson said: “Of course individual trustees can speak about issues but they must always make it clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the board, unless the board has agreed to this… Trustees should be able to explain decisions but need to keep in mind that they are not to undermine the board.”
Garrett Elliott, another new trustee for Trillium and Meadowbrook-Strathcona — the only rookie who did not run under the #TRUSTee banner — did offer comment, saying he did not feel muzzled by the board, and that he felt he had ample opportunity to speak to his constituents. Nevertheless, Garrett seemed apprehensive when asked for an interview.
In the end, Murray says she believes trustees are afraid to speak their minds and, even after leaving her position as chair, there remains a fear of retribution in speaking out against the board.
“I can only imagine the pressure that those trustees are under that they are not allowed and they are not permitted to speak freely.”
When asked if Hutcheon agreed with Murray’s statements that the board is run under a culture of fear, the trustee said it was difficult to say.
“It’s a hard one for me to say,” Hutcheon told Global News. “I have my own experience, but I couldn’t speak for the experience of other people.”
Hutcheon did say she felt the need to be cautious when answering questions.
She also said having had the chance to meet trustees from across the province over the last year, she’s seen differences between boards and their respective cultures.
“I don’t know, I think it depends on your board whether or not you feel that culture or not.”