Just a hours after the Limestone District School Board voted against hiring an integrity commissioner, an education expert from Nova Scotia presented a report, calling once again for the province to step in and investigate the board.
Paul Bennett, an independent education consultant based out of Halifax, stood at Kingston City Hall Thursday morning and presented a 25-page report, what he called an administrative review of the Limestone District School Board, saying there was a “governance crisis” at the board.
“It’s a crisis that’s caused by the assumption that you have misbehaving trustees who need to be disciplined,” Bennett said in an interview on Thursday.
“It’s a crisis because so many different groups feel that they’re not properly engaged or being usefully involved in education.”
Bennett says he is uniquely qualified to create such a report since he has been working in education for the last 40 years, and served as a trustee for nearly a decade in the York school board.
He also headed two independent schools, worked with the Ontario Public School Board Association, and has been an education consultant in Nova Scotia for the last decade.
In examining the Limestone District School Board, the education consultant found four areas that he believes need improvement at the Kingston public school board: alleged board secrecy and closed-door operations, what he says is a practice of silencing trustees, reported constraints on trustees from representing their constituents, and the board allegedly not “successfully meeting its multi-year plan objectives.“
Bennett has called for such a review process once before in an interview with Global News in December, following complaints from a group of concerned parents who had been actively campaigning for more transparency at the Limestone District School Board.
Just recently, Debra Rantz, director of education for the school board, announced she would be retiring at the end of this school year.
According to Bennett’s report, her retirement “did not come out of nowhere.”
In response, Rantz said she was proud of her career as an educator and shared the following statement:
“My retirement is in no way related to anything other than my personal choice to move on to new adventures after 27 years in service to public education.”
Bennett claims the crisis he referred to began a year after Rantz took up her position, with former chair of the board David Jackson.
“One year after the arrival of a new director of education, he was tagged with a ‘breach of communication’ and forced out of his position,” Bennett claims.
The board chair or communications for the board refused to comment on this allegation.
Suzanne Ruttan, chair of the board, said she would not be giving an interview on the subject, but offered an emailed statement saying she would not be dignifying Bennett’s report with much response.
“The report appears to be an opinion piece submitted by a for-profit consultant. It is rife with lies, errors, and inaccuracies, most of which were addressed by the Board at the January 15, 2020 Board meeting. Most regrettably, it also contains several libelous statements,” Ruttan said.
Bennett said he was asked to do the report by the group of concerned citizens, but was not paid to complete it.
“They paid for my flight and my accommodation and that’s it. The report is my gift to them,” Bennett told Global News.
In her emailed response, Ruttan also pointed to a Nova Scotia blogger, Grant Frost, who has previously written op-eds and blog posts about Bennett, saying the education consultant often has “questionable conclusions and a decidedly ‘anti-teacher’ stance.”
Bennett noted the article Frost wrote referred to one study he wrote over six years ago, and said he has written 11 more since that have never been questioned.
Global News was able to get in touch with Frost on Friday, when he said that he had in fact criticized two other policy papers Bennett wrote after the initial one referenced by the school board.
When asked if he thought Bennett was qualified to create a report on trustee issues in Kingston, Frost said he wasn’t able to comment, since he didn’t have enough knowledge of Ontario school board politics to comment.
“I’m in no position to criticize everything he’s ever done,” Frost said.
As for Bennett’s Limestone report, the consultant says issues at the Limestone board began to worsen when former chair and longtime trustee Jackson died in April 2018. As reported previously by Global News, some community members became unhappy with his replacement process.
Bennett noted that the board has two options when trustees need to be replaced: either a byelection is called or the board chooses a candidate.
“Given the short time left before the upcoming 2018 election, the Limestone District School Board decided on making an appointment,” Bennett’s report noted.
That appointment was Helen Chadwick, who was decided upon in private session.
“There was no ‘rise and report’ in public session, and when it was summarily announced Chadwick had already accepted the position,” Bennett’s report noted.
In a story written after Chadwick’s appointment, Rantz said the decision to choose her behind closed doors was due to matters of legal confidentiality.
“There were a number of legal documents shared with the trustees, legal opinions on how best to pursue the filling of this vacancy, and when there are legal matters to discuss as I mentioned as well, names of individuals … it is not appropriate for names to be discussed in public,” Rantz said in for a story originally published in May 2018.
Bennett also noted former trustee Tom Mahoney’s repeated censuring, saying his reprimands, and his ultimate barring from attending board meetings and graduations, “amounted to targeting and marginalizing him.”
According to a public motion, Mahoney was reprimanded for “disrespectful and unprofessional conduct with a Limestone District School Board staff member.”
Chair of the board Suzanne Ruttan addressed Mahoney’s censuring again in mid-January, noting the one-term trustee was censured for “repeated disrespectful behaviour of staff and to the integrity of the role of trustee.”
Bennett says it was in fact Mahoney’s treatment that launched the #TRUSTee campaign, which saw several candidates running and winning in the 2018 municipal election on a platform of further transparency.
The education consultant then pointed to the most recent censuring of Robin Hutcheon, who was reprimanded for overstepping her governance role by sending an email to the director of education, Debra Rantz, and taking the side of a parent without having full knowledge on the subject beforehand, according to Ruttan.
Originally, when Hutcheon was censured, Ruttan said: “Trustee Hutcheon got involved in a matter beyond the governance role … We are governors, we’re not education experts.”
In the end, Bennett says a strict adoption of the Ontario Public School Board Association’s suggested code of conduct, which Bennett said focuses on “clamping down on trustee misconduct and limiting who speaks to the public,” has led to a “corporate board” that silences trustees.
“I think the issue here is the code of conduct is too restrictive. It’s a straight jacket for trustees, constraining them from raising real issues, interacting with parents, influencing who they can talk to and who they can’t,” Bennett said.
“And I made the comment that, let’s face it, shouldn’t trustees have some human rights and freedom of expression?”
Bennett points to code of conduct rules that specify the board chair is the only trustee to speak on behalf of the board, and that any communication from a trustee that might seem critical could be grounds for reprimand.
“Civil behaviour is assumed to be a cardinal principle and all members were urged to be vigilant in identifying and rectifying any conduct which would ‘discredit or compromise the integrity of the board.'”
Bennett then points to Halton District School Board, who he says “has significantly upgraded its commitment to integrity and is exemplary in recognizing the rights of individual trustees, and, in particular, the rights to respectfully explain a minority position, express individual opinions on issues, and render decisions based on available facts and independent judgement.”
One thing Bennett believes sets the Halton school board apart is its election to retain an integrity commissioner.
This is something the Limestone voted down Wednesday evening, at another heated school board meeting. Trustees voted six to three against hiring an integrity commissioner, citing the costs would be too great.
Police were also called to the meeting Wednesday evening, after a dispute broke out between two people over a Limestone District School Board support sticker.
According to Const. Ash Gutheinz, stickers were being handed out by a school board supporter, and one was accidentally given to a school board protesters.
The person handing out the stickers then tried to take the sticker back and an altercation ensued, but Gutheinz says no one was injured, and no charges were laid.