The chair of the Limestone District School Board (LDSB) says she has received a “handful of letters” asking the province to investigate the LDSB after an education consultant told Global News last week that parents in the Kingston area should demand such a probe.
The education consultant, Paul Bennett, pointed to two incidents during the current and former school board terms that he says 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.
Global News has obtained eight letters addressed to Suzanne Ruttan, chair of the LDSB. Some were penned by concerned parents, while others were written by people involved in the #TRUSTee campaign that began during last year’s municipal election.
Letters requesting an investigation are the first step in the process of launching a provincial probe. Once the LDSB has reviewed the letters, it will make a decision on whether or not to move forward with the requests and, if the board agrees, the Ministry of Education will be asked to step in.
If the LDSB declines to request a provincial investigation, complainants can still go to the ministry directly and ask for a probe.
The local high school teachers’ union, OSSTF Limestone District 27, sent a letter to the board’s chair on Dec. 17, lamenting that the relationship between the union and the board has suffered over the last several years.
The letter was signed by the union’s president, Shawn Lavender, as well as Andrea Loken, president of the teachers’ bargaining unit; Cindi Scott, president of professional student service personnel; and Wendy Bonnell, president of the instructors’ bargaining unit.
The union says the board has implemented a “brick wall culture” that it claims has impeded collaboration between the two organizations, especially when it comes to dialogue with trustees.
“It is time that the LDSB reflect on the culture it has created. We believe that to make things better, issues must be brought into the open. Improvement can only happen by dealing with things through acknowledgement and open discussion.”
In an interview with Global News on Wednesday, Lavender said that when the union began hearing about incidents of violence against high school teachers in the area, it was first discouraged from speaking to trustees about the matter, and when the union did speak up, Lavender said the board simply ignored them.
“There’s been a long, divisive issue about bullying and the health and safety of our workers in this school,” Lavender said. “We have actually gone out of our way to find out from our members what the actual issues are at the schools and tried to bring that to the board. The board didn’t believe us.”
The union letter also makes several references to trustees being told they should not interact with the union, which the union called “disappointing.”
“Why should stakeholders not be encouraged to talk?” the letter read.
The union letter ends by asking the board for a provincial investigation and to “review and update the trustee code of conduct so that the focus is on improving our world-class system and not on stopping dissent or questions.”
When asked about the allegations outlined in the union letter, a representative for the LDSB said the school board would not be discussing the letters until the next board meeting.
Other letters written to Ruttan by parents and concerned citizens referenced three other incidents that prompted their calls for a provincial investigation.
Some mentioned the replacement of deceased trustee David Jackson, a decision that was made behind closed doors and riled some feathers since no election or public consultations were held.
Many also mentioned the repeated censuring of former trustee Mahoney, who was ultimately banned from attending school board meetings until past the municipal election in 2018. Mahoney did not run for office again but has been vocal in his continued disapproval of the school board over social media.
Most letters highlighted the recent censuring of Hutcheon, a rookie trustee for Stone Mills and Loyalist townships who was reprimanded in a private session on Oct. 30, as grounds for an investigation.
Through a Global News investigation, a parent, whose name was withheld to protect the identity of his son, came forward, saying he believed Hutcheon was censured for sending an email to Debra Rantz, LDSB director of education, to ensure concerns he had about his son and a vice-principal were being addressed.
When that initial story was published, neither Rantz nor Ruttan granted Global News an interview, despite numerous attempts to get comment about the accusations.
However, following the recent letters, Ruttan sent a statement to Global News clarifying that Hutcheon was not censured for simply sending an email.
“The trustee was not censured for emailing the director, but for weighing in on a school matter without having all of the information thereby breaching the trustee code of conduct,” Ruttan said in a statement.
Ruttan also noted that Hutcheon, as a trustee, has the right to contact the director of education, as outlined in the board’s resolution process.
The process lists the order in which complaints should be dealt with, starting with a school’s principal or vice-principal, then a superintendent and, finally, if necessary, the director of education.
In an interview following Hutcheon’s censure on Nov. 15, Ruttan said Hutcheon failed to meet the board’s resolution process.
Ruttan also noted that the board only censures trustees if they repeatedly commit a breach of board policies.
“You can be assured that the censure of trustees only occurs after numerous cautions for similar infractions,” Ruttan said.
Ruttan says the LDSB board of trustees is in recess until the new year but adds that the letters she has received will be brought up at the next LDSB meeting, along with all other correspondence.