Edmonton Catholic school board mired in conflict, consultant finds

Edmonton's troubled Catholic school board will have to report to the deputy minister of education as it develops a plan and timeline for fixing systemic dysfunction identified in a scathing report.

Board needs monitoring, has until Sept. 30 to develop plan to fix problems

The Edmonton Catholic school board is described as 'functionally challenged' in a report. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Edmonton's troubled Catholic school board will have to report regularly to the deputy minister of education as it develops a plan and timeline for fixing systemic dysfunction identified in a scathing report.

A 16-page draft report written by consultant Donald Cummings, appointed to observe the board's activities, was made public Friday.

Cummings was appointed by Education Minister David Eggen last fall, with a mandate to review the board's operations and make recommendations for improvements in governance practices. Leading up to Eggen's decision, trustees had broken down into shouting and tears during public debates around developing a policy to protect LGBTQ students.

Cummings was taken aback by the mess he found on what he calls the "functionally challenged board."

He attended more than 40 meetings between October 2015 and February 2016, but said he had to quickly abandon his work plan and structured approach for "constant fire-fighting and intervention on a frequent (often daily) ad hoc basis."

Trustees unprofessional, disrespectful

Cummings described the board as mired in "conflict and confusion" with governance challenges that are "systemic, deep and resistant to change."

He expected to find "a degree of formality and professionalism," but instead discovered a group incapable of behaving respectfully and civilly towards one another because of "interpersonal animosity and ineffective board dynamics."

When the trustees' conduct ran off the rails, Cummings said there was no meaningful way to address the problem, and nothing in the current policy to provide accountability or consequences for bad behaviour. 

He also found a huge divide between the trustees and the administration along with frustration and deep distrust between the two sides. 

"Our conclusion is that the board confuses its oversight role in administrative accountability with intervention in the administrative functioning," he wrote.

Edmonton Catholic School Board Chair Marilyn Bergstra (CBC)

Board chair defends 'contentious behavior'

Board Chair Marilyn Bergstra fired back in a written response that said trustees are not the only politicians who display "contentious behaviour." She admitted it's not acceptable but added, "I would suggest that the board of Edmonton Catholic Schools has become the poster child for such behaviour." 

Bergstra said the board has met privately several times to try to "build solidarity" and thinks they are now on a "very good path" to "move forward in a positive and professional manner...with the development of a new mission, vision and strategic plan." 

That's precisely the process the government-appointed adviser warned against.

Cummings found the board's problems were so deep-seated and the differences so hardened that trying to right the wrongs would be "virtually impossible without third-party mediation."

Education Minister David Eggen (CBC)

Education minister sets deadlines

In a letter sent this week to Bergstra, Eggen wrote, "it is clear that serious issues of board governance continue and require your immediate attention."

Eggen has assigned his deputy minister to work with the board "to improve governance capacity and increase overall board accountability." He has set a Sept. 30 deadline to submit a 15-month implementation plan. Eggen also told Bergstra to give him written updates every other week beginning the end of November. 

The minister reminded Bergstra that he expects the board's trustees "to act as role models to the students whose parents have entrusted you with the education of their children."