Hamilton school board trustee avoids conflict of interest case
Hamilton parent withdraws application against longtime trustee Judith Bishop
A Hamilton parent has withdrawn a conflict of interest allegation against a longtime school board trustee.
Mark Coakley, a Hamilton resident and parent at Prince Philip Elementary School, withdrew his conflict of interest application last week against Judith Bishop, Ward 1 and 2 trustee for Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB). In exchange Bishop agreed not to seek legal costs against Coakley.
Her lawyer said the case should never have been brought forward in the first place, saying it was a politically motiviated action during a contentious debate over school closings.
Bishop has held the position at HWDSB since 1988. The case would have been heard at Superior Court.
In an application filed in February, Coakley alleged that Bishop violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act when she voted in favour of closing Prince Philip, because doing so saved Dalewood and George R. Allan schools, both of which are in Bishop’s Westdale neighbourhood, according to the school board's media release.
Coakley's lawyer did not immediately respond to CBC Hamilton's interview requests.
According to Bishop's lawyer George Avraam, Coakley alleged Bishop has a financial stake in the vote because keeping the other two schools open would increase the property value of her Westdale home.
"We don't think this case should be brought in the first place," Avraam told CBC Hamilton. "This case is being used as a political tool to keep Prince Philip open."
He added the closure of Prince Philip was proposed by the school board staff and Bishop voted in favour of that recommendation.
Last April, the school board voted to close Prince Philip as part of its consolidation effort after years of declining enrolment. The increasing maintenance cost also drove the decision, Bishop told CBC Hamilton.
The school's 200 students will be moved to George R. Allan once the new location is renovated.
Bishop said the past several months have "not been tremendously easy" for her, but she is delighted with the decision and will now focus on integrating students from the two schools.
"We will work hard to transition and to put the two communities well together," she said.
Avraam, citing the recent high-profile cases in which conflict of interest charges against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Missisauga Mayor Hazel McCallion were dismissed, described the provincial legislation as "ambiguous." He said Bishop's case calls for a clearer definition of the legislation.
The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association has also asked the provincial government to clarify how far the municipal conflict of interest rules go when trustees are dealing with local issues where they also reside and own property.
"Conflict of interest allegations against Trustee Bishop involving school review and closure processes in her own neighbourhood set a dangerous precedent for all trustees in Ontario," said OPSBA President Michael Barrett. "The concept that trustees cannot vote on issues concerning their community is absolutely ludicrous."