Education minister reviews his deputy's dual role amid conflict of interest concerns

Education, Early Learning and Culture Minister Doug Currie is reviewing the role of Susan Willis who is both the deputy minister of his department and the chairperson of the board of directors of the Public Schools Branch over concerns of a conflict of interest.

Emails show deputy minister, who is also chair of Public Schools Branch, was consulted during school review

P.E.I. Education Minister Doug Currie is reviewing the dual role of Susan Willis as deputy minister and chair of the board of directors of the Public Schools Branch. (CBC)

Education, Early Learning and Culture Minister Doug Currie is reviewing the role of Susan Willis, who is both the deputy minister of his department and the chairperson of the board of directors of the Public Schools Branch, over concerns of a conflict of interest.  

Emails obtained earlier this week through a Freedom of Information request show there were emails between Bob Andrews, who was hired to draft recommendations in a review of Island schools that started last fall and Willis, who was a member of three-person board that was to vote on the recommendations. Other members of Public Schools Branch and government communications staff were also copied on some of the emails. 

Clearly conflict, Susan Willis has two directly competing titles.— Steven Myers, MLA and education critic

"Clearly conflict, Susan Willis has two directly competing titles. One where she answers to herself and one where she answers to Wade MacLauchlan. I'm not sure how it can be perceived as anything but conflict of interest," said MLA and Education Critic Steven Myers.

The Board of Directors of the Public Schools Branch at the time it delivered its decisions on recommendations: (from left to right) Harvey MacEwen, Susan WIllis and Pat Mella. Pat Mella has since resigned. (CBC)

"Doug Currie and Wade MacLauchlan were both telling us that they weren't having, it wasn't going to be lead by government. It was lead by Bob Andrews and he was going to get input from the public and it was going to be the public opinion that was going to help shape the final recommendations," said Myers.

During the school review process Andrews said he hoped Islanders would come forward with suggestions to address the issues of overcrowding and undercapacity at some P.E.I. schools.

Changes to Education Act

Changes last year to the Education Act set up this dual role for Willis. The act stipulates the deputy minister also chair the board of directors of the PSB. The Department of Education said this is a new government model and the school review process was a good way to observe how it works. After the review and now that there are concerns the department said it is timely to look at ways to improve the ways things are set up. Minister Currie will be looking closer at whether the PSB board chair has to be the deputy minister of education, said the department.

MLA and Education Critic Steven Myers says the emails between Susan Willis and Bob Andrews obtained through a Freedom of Information request are concerning. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

The P.E.I. Public Schools Branch drafted recommendations on Jan. 10, 2017 to address underutilized or overcrowded Island schools.

However, prior to that date, emails show Bob Andrews was emailing Susan Willis and other Public Schools Branch staff about the school review process and asking for feedback. 

An email dated Jan. 3, 2017 shows Andrews asking Willis to review recommendations. That's about a week before the recommendations were made public. Also copied on the email was the PSB director and other PSB staff, Currie's communications officer, and the communications person for Premier Wade MacLauchlan.

Emails provided through a Freedom of Information request. (Submitted by P.E.I. Department of Education, Early Learning and Culture)

Concerns about conflict of interest

Another email dated Jan. 6, 2017 from Andrews to Willis, the other two members of the board of the PSB, and other education staff said, "These are confidential as they are not complete and have not been tabled to the PSB Directors. Susan asked me to forward these for your review," said Andrews in the email. 

Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request. (Submitted by P.E.I. Department of Education, Early Learning and Culture)

Concerns about a conflict of interest with Willis' two roles were raised in February by the Georgetown Elementary Home and School Association.  

At the time, Minister Currie addressed the issue of an alleged conflict involving his deputy minister saying he was "very confident she can act independently" of government, and said he did not get involved in discussions with her that would impact decisions she would have to make as a member of the board of directors of the Public Schools Branch.

Today the education department pointed out that many recommendations were not supported by the board and in the end no Island schools were closed. The department also said the public was listened to during public consultations. 

The department said one of the intents of the new Education Act was to bring the PSB closer to the education department to streamline and improve collaborations between education staff and PSB employees. 

Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request between Bob Andrews and Susan Willis. (Submitted by P.E.I. Department of Education, Early Learning and Culture)
Emails obtained through Freedom of Information show Bob Andrews asking for input from Susan Willis before they were public and eventually voted on by her. (Submitted by P.E.I. Department of Education, Early Learning and Culture)

About the Author

Krystalle Ramlakhan

Krystalle Ramlakhan is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I., Winnipeg and Iqaluit.