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Trustee tempers flare at Limestone school board meeting over calls for transparency probe

Limestone School Board respond to the public’s external review requests
The Limestone School Board met for the first time in 2020 and were presented with over a dozen letters written by residents asking for an external review of the board's governance.

Tempers flared as trustees with the Limestone District School Board (LDSB) grappled with possible measures to address community complaints about a lack of transparency.

Wednesday night’s school board meeting, the first of the new year, was tense at times. Motions were presented and withdrawn, hands raised quickly and often with points of order through heated discussions, mainly focused on board governance issues.

READ MORE: Group of trustee candidates run against Limestone District School Board’s alleged lack of transparency

What prompted the unrest were several letters, written to the chair of the board Suzanne Ruttan, asking for an external review of the board’s own governance of trustees.

The meeting culminated with a motion put forward by Tom Gingrich, trustee for Kingscourt-Rideau and King’s Town, asking for a staff report about what it would cost to hire an integrity commissioner on retainer. The motion narrowly passed by a vote of five to four.

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It was a compromise to another motion first tabled by Williamsville and Sydenham trustee Joy Morning, who asked, going forward, that all future trustee censure discussions be accompanied by an integrity commissioner’s investigation.

Unlike municipalities, Ontario school boards are currently not required to have an integrity commissioner to look into citizen or trustee complaints.

Peel district school board reviews report from integrity commissioner
Peel district school board reviews report from integrity commissioner

Morning’s motion was viewed as a type of concession since she had originally proposed the board ask for an external investigation into its own governance procedures in response to requests found in over a dozen community letters sent to the board.

However, Morning’s motion was withdrawn from the discussion after many in the room, including school board superintendent Andre Labrie, said they didn’t understand what kind of investigation Morning was asking for.

Trustees Karen McGregor, who represents Central Frontenac, Addington Highlands and North Frontenac, and Laurie French, who represents Napanee, were adamantly opposed to calls for an independent review.

“The ministry (of education) knows about what’s happened. If they wanted to review, they would review. But by asking for that, we are relinquishing our board,” French said before saying she wouldn’t support the motion.

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Another non-elected official, LDSB director of education Debra Rantz, appeared to voice similar thoughts during a request for staff input.

“It would be highly unusual for a board to ask for a review of themselves,” Rantz told the meeting. “There would be no requirement for the ministry to go and do that just because you asked.”

Rantz did say that the Ministry of Education has reviewed school boards for financial reasons, but warned trustees could essentially be unseated during a review process.

“That would mean you no longer exist,” Rantz said.

Morning said she originally proposed the review in light of a letter-writing campaign and unhappiness in her own district during the 2018 election, when she said she knocked on 7,000 doors.

“I really believe we need to work on restoring public confidence in the board,” Morning told the meeting.

The calls for an external investigation of the board’s practices, first reported by Global News, was initially floated by Nova Scotia-based education consultant, Paul Bennett.

READ MORE: Education consultant calls for provincial review of Kingston-area public school board

Since the December 2019 story, the school board has received several letters asking that an investigation take place. The board’s Jan. 15 agenda included 15 letters in support and two more opposed to an investigation, while other letters were received past the deadline to make it onto the agenda.

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The letters in favour of an investigation most often cited the recent censure of Robin Hutcheon, trustee for Loyalist and Stone Mills townships, as a reason to probe the board’s governance practices.

Other letters noted the repeated censuring on former trustee Tom Mahoney, and the replacement of trustee David Jackson without public consultation, as examples that the board may not be functioning as it should.

Chair of the board Suzanne Ruttan, who represents South Frontenac, read out a written response to the letters, noting beforehand they contained “several inaccuracies,” and that her statement was written to “correct and clarify the misleading information and provide the facts.”

She added the letter-writing campaign mostly involved failed trustee candidates, family members of trustees and people who are upset with the 2017 closure of a Yarker public school.

“We haven’t heard from the majority of our constituent base,” which Ruttan said was approximately 38,000.

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Ruttan told Global News that one of the biggest inaccuracies in the letters was the school board’s handling of the Yarker Family School closure, which prompted a constituent, Eric DePoe, to ask the province for an administrative review shortly after the decision was made — a request that was ultimately denied by the province.

“The government didn’t want an administrative review of that because everything did go right. So by policy, it was done correctly,” Ruttan told Global News in an interview.

Of the 17 letters discussed at the meeting, only one letter specifically mentioned ill feelings towards the Yarker school closure, written by a former teacher, Wayne Goodyer.

“It was heartbreaking to watch parents struggle against board senior staff who refused requests for information and thwarted every effort to find some role for Yarker’s unique educational setting. All the while elected officials were denied participation in the process,” Goodyer wrote.

School Board trustee trying to address complaints about transparency
School Board trustee trying to address complaints about transparency

Ruttan says although it’s good to see so many people engage in local school politics, she feels that many of those involved in the letter-writing campaign are still “hurt” by the closure of the rural elementary school.

Trustee Hutcheon was intimately involved in the fight against the Yarker school closure, chairing a community group called Rural Schools Matters during the discussion, and was elected trustee on a reform-minded platform in the 2018 municipal election.

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Hutcheon’s own censure was also a major talking point at the latest school board meeting.

Limestone School Board Trustee Censured
Limestone School Board Trustee Censured

The details around what exactly Hutcheon did wrong were at first a mystery, with the school board noting initially that she overstepped her governance role by getting involved in an operational matter.

Through a Global News investigation with a parent who claims to be at the centre of Hutcheon’s censure, Global News learned the reprimand stems from an email Hutcheon sent to the education director, Debra Rantz, on behalf of the parent, who was concerned about the treatment of his son at a Limestone school.

READ MORE: Kingston-area parent believes elected trustee was punished for trying to represent him

Ruttan says that letter-writers wrongly assumed that Hutcheon was censured for the email itself, but clarified in the letter that trustees are allowed to speak directly to parents and the director of education. Rather, Ruttan argues, as a trustee she is not allowed to “take sides” without having all the information before her.

There are other sides to the story. There are circumstances, and it is our job to listen and to redirect it back to the point of conflict, if there is conflict. What we don’t do is we don’t take opinion on that and we don’t take sides on it,” Ruttan told Global News in an interview after the meeting.

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Ruttan also said Hutcheon further breached the trustee code of conduct by copying the parent to the email sent to the director, which was seen as speaking on behalf of the board.

“The email was sent to the parent, and that is where she spoke for the board,” Ruttan said. “She mentioned staff and she made assumptions about what had or had not been done.”

Ruttan made it clear that the board only censures trustees after they had been repeatedly spoken to about alleged misconduct, but would not elaborate on exactly what Hutcheon was accused of doing wrong.

“This was not the first time.”

At the end of her statement, Ruttan turned to Hutcheon, asking for her to speak.

READ MORE: Teachers’ union, parents send letters to Kingston school board asking for provincial investigation

“Trustee Hutcheon, given these letters have been prompted by your censure … given everything I’ve read in your apology letter and your statement to the media, it would appear that you have expressed your own desire for this censure behind you and move on. Is that the case?”

Hutcheon was taken aback, saying she did not expect to be called upon with this question and noted that she would like to move on from her censure, but she added that she wasn’t sure the letters were focused only on her reprimand.

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“I would, however, question that it is simply my censure that has prompted these letters. I have counted 29 separate things that came out of these letters not related to my censure,” Hutcheon said.

In the end, Ruttan said she recommended that the board take no further action on the letters.

“So given your (trustee Hutcheon’s) desire to move on, I recommend no further action, given the current political climate,” Ruttan said.

As for the motion put forward by Tom Gingrich to explore the cost of hiring an integrity commissioner, a motion that Ruttan voted against, she says she’s waiting for more information to be revealed before she voices her opinion.

The fact-finding motion did not include a timeline for staff to report back to the board.