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Tyranny and toxic rot within the Winnipeg school board

Winnipeg School Board administration building.


Winnipeg School Board administration building.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/7/2015 (1783 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Suspicious. Vindictive. Threatening. Political leaders out of control, brewing a toxic environment amid a culture of fear. People silenced for fear of retribution.

This is not the plot line for a movie based on a tin-pot dictator and his secret police in the backwater of a fascist state. It is the assessment of a independent consultant on the state of affairs in Manitoba’s largest school division, the Winnipeg school board.

Winnipeggers should be outraged.

John Wiens, an education professor and a former superintendent, was asked to get to the bottom of infighting, secrecy and wrongdoing at the Winnipeg School Division last year. His diagnosis? Dysfunctional, and maybe beyond fixing.

There is a toxic rot prevailing at the WSD and it is preying upon divisional staff and senior administrators because of the way trustees treat them and each other.

It’s near tyranny, if half of what Mr. Wiens discovered in interviewing division staff is true. Division staff and senior administrators were harassed, hounded, dismissed and demeaned; threatened and intimidated into serving the political and personal agendas of trustees.

The prevailing view is chief superintendent Pauline Clarke is "powerless or disinclined" to protect them.

The NDP government is not blameless in this intolerable mess. Why has it waited until this to put the WSD, and all school boards, under the authority of the ombudsman’s office and subject to whistleblower legislation?

Mr. Wiens said he scratched just the surface of its problems. Had he been given the power of inquiry, to take testimony under oath and to protect those he spoke with, he would have heard much more about misconduct and mismanagement.

The refusal of trustees to act professionally, to take advice from administration and make political decisions as a unified public body, has seen chaos reign. Case in point: the 2015/16 $400-million budget. Making headcheese would have been cleaner and sweeter. The finance committee ignored the division’s three-year plan — apparently unaware it existed — for school funding. Drafting the budget was fractious and divisive as trustees pushed for their own election promises.

He had equally harsh criticism for the way the board and individual trustees — particularly the infamously confrontational Mike Babinsky — handled controversies, particularly the matters at LaVérendrye and Greenway schools.

In response, board chairman Mark Wasyliw, also singled out for special criticism, said Wiens’ work is tainted by conflict of interest: Wiens supported a losing candidate in the last trustee election so his work appears biased. It is a breathtaking allegation Mr. Allum must address.

Mr. Wasyliw makes no apology for his "activist" board’s style, and in reply he attacked Wiens for a lack of regard for the power of elected officials. Ward trustees are not elected to acquiesce to a board majority, but to fight for their schools and their electors’ interests, he said.

But the chairman’s reply, which then proceeds to take shots at fellow trustees and administrators, highlights Wiens’ observations.

There have been previous occasions where the minister has had to insert a special representative to clean up trouble in other school boards. This may point to a deeper problem with the administration of a critical public service in this province. But firing a democratically elected board of trustees to be replaced by a provincial appointee has never been on the table.

Mr. Allum has told the WSD trustees to forget about summer vacation. They must write a plan by September to implement all of Wiens’ 22 recommendations. If they don’t, they will be gone by Jan. 1.

If the trustees want to protect the democratic will of electors, they must address these problems. Nothing will work if they refuse to act like adults and find common ground to work in the best interests of students and schools. That has to come from deft leadership and mutual goodwill. The first job is for trustees to decide who among them can guide that process.

TOMORROW: What should we do with school boards in Manitoba?


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