A Canadian education expert says parents should demand the province investigate the Limestone District School Board over its “backwards” governance policies.
“I think it’s time for the public to rise up in the Limestone District School Board area,” education consultant Paul Bennett told Global News. “They should be looking for a provincial investigation.”
“One thing [is] for sure: we know this school board is not going to clean up its own governance act.”
Bennett pointed to two incidents during the current and former school board terms to justify the need for a review: three censures against Tom Mahoney, a former trustee for Loyalist-Cataraqui, Collins-Bayridge and Lakeside districts, and the recent reprimand of Robin Hutcheon, a current trustee representing Loyalist and Stone Mills townships.
Mahoney’s censures, among other things, prompted a citizen’s group to band together during the 2018 municipal election campaign.
The group fielded a handful of candidates under the “#TRUSTee” banner to push for more transparency among elected officials.
Hutcheon was one of the reformist candidates who was elected but recently found herself in hot water among her peers.
Bennett, who is the founding director of Schoolhouse Institute and founder of researchED Canada, believes Hutcheon’s formal reprimand, was unwarranted and, compounded with complaints from concerned parents, enough to suggest the board may be unjustly silencing its elected trustees.
Bennett says the steady erosion of elected officials’ power to speak out on issues affecting them and their constituents is something he has seen happen across the country.
He noted that in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec, school boards have been eliminated and replaced by either superintendents or “functionaries that have lesser governance responsibilities,” something he believes is a threat to the democratic process.
He says the code of conduct that governs trustee behaviour — a template adopted by school boards at the suggestion of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association — is being used as a means to silence elected officials.
“As the trustees are reduced in power, the superintendents and the senior administration grow to the point where they totally dominate in every school board in Ontario today,” Bennett said.
He says the adoption of strict governance rules makes it nearly impossible for trustees to speak up on behalf of their constituents.
“They owe their allegiance to the board first and, secondarily, to those that put them there, the citizen, and the school board has got it backwards.”
The Limestone District School Board stands by its policy that only the chair can act as a public spokesperson for board decisions on everything from setting budgets to naming a school.
Trustees have previously used this policy to deny interviews to the media, although Global News recently clarified the code of conduct does not restrict individual trustees from speaking on their own behalf if they so choose.
There appear to be other areas in the Limestone District School Board-adopted code that can restrict the individual powers of trustees, including one that disallows them from exercising “individual authority” and other rules that prevent trustees from criticizing fellow board members and speaking negatively against the board and its decisions.
In Hutcheon’s case, she was reprimanded in October with four code of conduct violations and one violation of the director of education’s job description because the board felt she had undermined the director’s authority over personnel issues.
Through a Global News investigation, a parent has come forward to say he believes Hutcheon was punished for sending an email to the director of education on his behalf, since he felt he was not being helped by school board staff over an incident involving his son.
Bennett believes Hutcheon was wrongfully reprimanded.
“She has every right to speak and to represent her constituents and to carry the concerns of parents to the director of education,” Bennett said.
“That’s her job. It shouldn’t be something she’s made to feel is inappropriate or in any way outside the bounds of proper governance.”
He added that holding elected officials to such a standard of being unable to speak as an individual is unique to trustees in Ontario.
Veteran city Coun. Jim Neill says he’s noticed what he called a significant difference between the governance roles of municipal councillors versus trustees in Kingston.
The councillor for Williamsville district, who is also a retired teacher with the Upper Canada District School Board, says what’s happening to his education counterparts is “troubling.”
“School boards and councils are equal bodies duly elected by the constituents,” Neill said.
However, Neill feels there is a “stark contrast” in how trustees are governed compared to councillors.
“Council does things in an open way. When we make policies, we have town hall meetings, we have online surveys, we go out of our way to seek community input.
“The school board appears to do the opposite, and any trustees duly elected who wants greater transparency seems to be shut down.“
Neill does not believe city councillors are necessarily more ethical than their school board counterparts, but he sees the process for investigating potential breaches as being fairer at city hall than it is for school board members.
“We have an integrity commissioner, and everything is taken out of the hands of staff,” Neill explained.
“I think that that is a really objective way. The board doesn’t have an integrity commissioner.”
Both Neill and Bennett referred to Hutcheon’s censure and the repeated censuring of former trustee Tom Mahoney, who faced three reprimands from the board in his one term as trustee and an outright ban from attending school board meetings before he decided not to seek re-election in 2018.
More than a year after his departure, and following Hutcheon’s reprimand, Mahoney says he’s disappointed yet not surprised that Hutcheon was publicly scolded by the other trustees.
Mahoney has long stood by the fact that he broke the code of conduct in one case when he suggested that parents should run against board members if they were unhappy with board policies and decisions.
But he has also held to his stance that the board’s code of conduct is used and perhaps abused to keep trustees muzzled.
“If you look hard enough on it, you can find anything that someone did wrong. It’s so ambiguous and open to interpretation,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney pointed to Hutcheon’s previous activism, in which she fought the school board to keep rural schools open, and her involvement in the #TRUSTee campaign in the last municipal election.
“She was viewed as a strong link there for public education and wanted to go engage with the public. So based on that, I believe that they found something in the code of conduct and they jumped on it immediately,” he said.
Global News asked Limestone District School Board director of education Deborah Rantz and school board chair Suzanne Ruttan for comment on Bennett’s suggestion to open a provincial investigation over the alleged muzzling of trustees.
In response, Jane Douglas, the board’s communications officer, said the chair of the board had offered comment for previous stories and felt there was “no new information to provide,” adding that it would be inappropriate for Rantz to comment on a situation involving trustees.
Now a private citizen, Mahoney says he still supports the role of the elected trustee, but given the current climate, he doubts there is much room for them to effectively represent their constituents.
“If the public really paid attention, they’d be saying: ‘Well, what? Do they have any value? What use are they except for going around maybe in promoting graduations and giving out certificates?’” Mahoney said.
In the end, it’s this same worry that Bennett has for the Limestone District School Board: that the board of trustees, with no real role to play, may be putting themselves and the democratic institution of the school board out of business.
“Things could get worse in Limestone because here’s what can happen — all of the board is fired. They’re all considered to be dysfunctional and they’re replaced by a one-person board who’s usually a retired superintendent.”