Winnipeg School Division board chair fires back at scathing review

The chair of the Winnipeg School Division's board of trustees is slamming a government report that accuses trustees of being "out of control" and micromanaging the division's business while "playing political games" with each other.

Report by John Wiens says trustees not following policies and 'playing political games'

Mark Wasyliw, chair of the board of the Winnipeg School Division, says he is committed to reviewing the governance recommendations set out in the report. (CBC)

The chair of the Winnipeg School Division's board of trustees is slamming a government report that accuses trustees of being "out of control" and micromanaging the division's business while "playing political games" with each other.

Mark Wasyliw says the report by John Wiens, which was commissioned by the provincial government, is "inaccurate and incomplete."

Wasyliw questioned the impartiality of the report's author and takes issue with the fact that anonymous comments from employees were included.

"The information that he was given was incomplete or downright inaccurate, and the entire report is just chock filled with sort of rumour, innuendo, gossip that he doesn't substantiate in any way," he said in an interview on CBC's Radio Noon program on Tuesday.

The report by Wiens, dean emeritus of the University of Manitoba's faculty of education, states that the board was unwilling to do "due diligence" when it came to following its own policies and bylaws.

For example, trustees did not recuse themselves from situations of conflict of interest and felt justified in bypassing protocol and contacting schools directly, Wiens said, adding that there were also issues with the "treatment and protection of employees, labour relations protocols [and] financial matters."

As well, he said the board was not willing to "consult, consider, reconsider any opinions other than their own and their penchant for playing political games with each other, schools and parents, and their staff."

"What I have encountered suggests an urgent need for a formidable, hopefully not impossible, undertaking. The board, as a board, is currently 'out of control' and the superintendent/CEO either powerless or disinclined to insist that the board not micromanage and interfere," Wiens stated in his report.

Recent controversies cited

Wiens cited several recent controversies involving the board, including its handling of a proposed school swap between École La Vérendrye and Earl Grey School.

Parents of La Vérendrye students had pushed for a building swap with Earl Grey School, but that proposal drew the ire of Earl Grey parents who feared the school would lose its junior high and nursery programs as a result.

The division instead decided that Sir William Osler School will be used for nursery to Grade 1 students, while Robert H. Smith and Earl Grey schools will remain unchanged for now. That decision angered La Vérendrye parents.

"The La Vérendrye-Earl Grey controversy which in most divisions would also have been a routine administrative matter under board policies and procedures has become a never-ending contention with no end in sight fuelled by the actions of some board members who are not held in check by the others," Wiens wrote in his report.

Board upheld Babinsky's behaviour, report says

The Wiens report also took aim at veteran trustee Mike Babinsky, who has been censured twice in six months for inappropriate behaviour that included using offensive language and being disrespectful to other trustees and officials.

Wiens wrote that the board was unwilling to "use the full provisions of the law to attempt to prevent further inappropriate behaviour and actions of Trustee Babinsky."

The report noted that in one recent case, the board even took to "social media to uphold his inappropriate conduct."

Wiens also discussed a request by Greenway School parents for religious instruction, saying what should have been a routine decision by the board of trustees turned into a "full-blown" crisis that has dragged on for more than two months.

"The law appears to be ignored, the parent delegation has been treated disrespectfully, and board members continue their political posturing while the public reputation of the board continues in decline," he wrote.

Wiens has issued 22 recommendations for the school division's board. Education Minister James Allum says he wants the board to have a full implementation plan by the end of August and make "significant progress" by the end of the year.

In his report, Wiens calls on Allum to fire the entire board of trustees if they can't "get their act together" by then.

"What going on right now in the bright glare of the public is embarrassing, shameful, and reckless, extremely detrimental to the division and the very idea of boards of trustees," he wrote.

"If this group of people cannot find the resolve and the means to get their act together by December 31, 2015, the minister should replace them with an Official Trustee as allowed for under The Public Schools Act."

Wiens in conflict of interest, Wasyliw claims

In addition to questioning the report's use of anonymous comments, Wasyliw accused Wiens of being in conflict of interest.

Wasyliw said Wiens had recruited and helped a candidate who ran against Trustee Sherri Rollins in Ward 1 in last year's school trustee election. Rollins won the ward.

"Upon review of his report it is clear that this history has coloured and/or influenced the results of this report," Wasyliw wrote in a personal response to the report's findings.

"Even if I am wrong on this point there will always be the perception that Mr. Wiens was more critical of those who bested his preferred candidate."

Wasyliw also said he was never made aware of the criticism being levelled against him and the board throughout the review process.

At the same time, Wasyliw said the report does contain some "reasonable and mostly helpful" suggestions in improving the division's governance. Trustees are implementing those recommendations, he said.

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