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They can be arrogant, but should they be fired?

New trustees aren't to blame for much of review's findings

Winnipeg School Division Trustee Mike Babinsky

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg School Division Trustee Mike Babinsky

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/7/2015 (1788 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The ferocity of the language investigator John Wiens unleashed about the Winnipeg School Division and its board of trustees is astonishing.

Wiens said in his review of WSD governance released Tuesday Education Minister James Allum should fire the entire board on New Year's Eve if the trustees have not cleaned up their act, which he described as shameful and reckless dysfunction, a board that is out of control.

Wiens said there is a toxic culture of fear, to the point trustees threaten senior administrators who try to bring forward their expertise at school board meetings.

He reserved special criticism for board chairman Mark Wasyliw, finance chairwoman Sherri Rollins and two-decade trustee Mike Babinsky, who Wiens said is so often guilty of conduct unbecoming a trustee the board should use every legal means possible to curtail Babinsky and suspend him for as long as the law allows.

Indeed, there are accounts of some very egregiously inappropriate activity in the Wiens report.

Trustees should not be going into an employee's computer to access and transmit documents. Trustees should not be running rampant through staff areas, apparently barking out orders and seemingly bullying divisional workers who fear for their jobs. And surely everyone wants to know what the cited allegation of harassment by a trustee is about.

The province's largest school division for years has had a well-deserved reputation for conducting far too much of its important business behind closed doors, for not always understanding the distinction between the role of trustees and the role of education staff and of spending more time on personality conflicts than on the education of children.

Sherri Rollins

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sherri Rollins

But let's all stop for a moment and take a deep breath.

Six of the nine members of this board first took office in early November. The province appointed Wiens in December to report by March 31 on how to improve the governance structure of the WSD and to improve transparency and openness to the public. He reported June 4.

How much of what Wiens condemned in such apocalyptic terms is the result of what these individuals have done in the few months since being elected and how much is a culture within both the board and the administration that has been entrenched for many years?

Not since the NDP fired the Morris-Macdonald school board in the fall of 2001 over the adult learning centre financial scandal has the government even hinted at using its last-resort weapon on school trustees -- not even when the Education Department was investigating that horrendous mess in Thompson did Allum's predecessor, Nancy Allan, even acknowledge she could replace the board with an official trustee.

So, how would Allum justify firing trustee Kevin Freedman, who has been deluging the board agenda almost from Day 1 with motions to open up board business and division information to the public? Any reasonable person would conclude Freedman is working for the better public good.

How would Allum justify firing trustee Allan Beach, seven months on the job when Wiens filed his report, who others in the boardroom say takes all the time necessary to listen to everyone and to gather all possible information before opening his mouth?

What has trustee Chris Broughton done to deserve being fired?

The Winnipeg School Division's board has been guilty for many years of acting like a municipal council, acting like individuals who stood for election to represent their communities.

Mark Wasyliw

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Mark Wasyliw

Wasyliw said in his angry rebuttal Wiens does not understand what WSD trustees see as their role.

Read the lengthy preamble to Wiens' report, and you'll likely conclude the former Seven Oaks School Division superintendent takes the Manitoba School Boards Association's position: school trustees are members of a corporate board of directors seeking consensus on major policy issues and overseeing a professional staff that knows best how to run the division.

Brandon is probably the only other board on which the chairperson generally speaks to the media -- anywhere else, superintendents do the talking.

Wiens picked out the Greenway School religious instruction controversy as one of the pillars of his fire-them-all threat. He said the board had ignored the law and had disrespected parents.

This would be the 25 or so families who signed consent forms for their kids to meet privately for prayer before classes started and to take part in Bible studies to be conducted over lunch by the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Canada.

It was trustee Dean Koshelanyk who looked at the parents' petitions and realized they were completely inadequate. It was trustee Lisa Naylor who convinced a majority to urge Allum to change the law and thus allow trustees to decide if such religious studies being conducted within their schools violated WSD values on issues such as homophobia and evolution.

Yes, WSD trustees can be argumentative; they can be rude and obnoxious and arrogant, and get snippy with each other, and language can go over the line, and that's not always just Babinsky's doing. And yes, they should be respectful and civil at all times with all employees, in public and behind closed doors.

As Wasyliw said, most of Wiens' recommendations are already underway at the instigation of the new board. Meetings are longer and much more business gets done in public. Even Babinsky is getting along with people recently.

It would be an extraordinary move were Allum to fire this board.

And an even more extraordinary message that moving toward acting like adults and serving the people of Manitoba can't be achieved without the threat of political oblivion.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Thursday, July 9, 2015 at 6:14 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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