Nfld. & Labrador

'Costly' plan for financial oversight fixes gets green light at NLESD meeting

School board trustees unanimously voted for a big-ticket "action plan" to fix financial oversight issues, but were divided on whether they could discuss other matters in public.

Trustees split on other issues that were referred to closed session after testy debate

The board of trustees for the NLESD held a public meeting Saturday afternoon. Pictured from left to right are trustees Keith Culleton, Raymond Bennett, Scott Burden and Lester Simmons. (Rob Antle/CBC)

School board trustees unanimously voted for a big-ticket "action plan" to fix financial oversight issues, but were divided on whether they could discuss other matters in public.

"This is a plan that is ambitious, comprehensive, and, to tell the truth, will be costly," vice-chair Wayne Lee told CBC News.

Financial officials estimated that price tag at upwards of $2 million in each of the first two years to put new financial systems in place, then a consistent $1.3 million a year for staffing costs after that.

In September, Auditor General Julia Mullaley issued a stinging report about endemic financial oversight issues at the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District.

The plan to address these issues is "quite complex," Lee said.

"But in essence, it directs the senior staff to take measures to prevent what has happened from happening again, and to monitor things as closely as they can."

The financial ask will now be forwarded to the province.

"Our people will correspond with the people in government to see what resources are available to do the job that needs to be done," Lee said.

Apology for 'drive-by shooting' comment

But the unity among trustees ended there.

After a series of testy exchanges, the board voted eight to seven to move something behind closed doors. It involved whether something discussed by the executive committee should be publicly discussed by trustees.

Trustee Peter Whittle disagreed with that move.

"The intention of the discussion which occurred, was that we had just come out of an auditor general's meeting," Whittle said.

The issue is how we do that process. And following the suggestion of the auditor general to close loopholes that might lead to risk in the future. That's all. It's just simple as that.- Peter Whittle, NLESD trustee

"We're told to look at risk. And we looked at risk, and we determined that nobody has done anything untoward ... What we're saying is that it's important in the future, to make sure we close those loopholes."

Whittle said he wanted to have a conversation about that, in public.

"I would reiterate to every member of the board, there is no question of insults or calling into question the character or behaviour of any of the staff. The issue is how we do that process. And following the suggestion of the auditor general to close loopholes that might lead to risk in the future. That's all. It's just simple as that."

Lee disagreed.

"The issue was whether we should be naming names and discussing our executive members in emails," he said. "Not about the process of the auditor general."

Added Whittle: "I think the public should have an opportunity to know what we're talking about, that's all."

"Following the closed session, anything that we want to take out of closed session, we can make public. It's not buried forever. It's simply a matter of having a thorough discussion without naming names of people who are just kind of innocent in a drive-by shooting," Lee replied.

It's simply a matter of having a thorough discussion without naming names of people who are just kind of innocent in a drive-by shooting.- Wayne Lee, vice-chair, NLESD board of trustees

In an interview afterwards, Lee apologized for that comment, calling it a "poor choice of words."

As for the debate to move the matter into a closed session, Lee chalked that up to a procedural error.

He said there are privacy rules that cover personnel issues.

"Once you start bandying names about for any reason you're treading in very dangerous territory," Lee said.

"There is no secret to it. Anything that needs to be dealt with in public will come out of the closed session. If you're going to deal with people whose names and reputations could be somehow negated or something like that, we have to be careful. It's more a matter of being careful than secretive."

'Here to exact change'

But some trustees raised general concerns.

Keith Culleton said it is time to "clear the laundry, so to speak."

He noted that the auditor general focused on transparency and accountability, and indicated it is time for the status quo to stop.

"We're here for a reason," Culleton said. "We're here to exact change."

Wayne Lee is vice-chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District board of trustees. (Rob Antle/CBC)

So is there a split between the older guard and some newer trustees?

Not the case, according to Lee.

"Not a split as such, but it is simply true that people have arrived with agendas to try to get things done, and some may be a little more anxious than others," Lee said.

"I certainly wouldn't regard it as a split, but there are obviously going to be differences of opinion, and I think that's a good thing."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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