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Greater Victoria trustees’ suspensions result of disparaging Twitter comments, board chair says

Some details of decision revealed in public letter, following community concern
Greater Victoria School District trustees Diane McNally and Rob Paynter have been censured by the board and suspended from their duties until October for misconduct relating to bullying and harassment complaints. (Black Press Media file photo)

Twitter comments critical of the Greater Victoria School District’s secretary-treasurer and another staff member were what led to the suspension of two board trustees earlier this month, the board chair revealed Thursday.

The district first announced its decision to censure and suspend trustees Diane McNally and Rob Paynter on Feb. 11. It said a third-party investigation substantiated two staff members’ summer 2021 complaints of harassment and bullying by the trustees. SD61 chose not to disclose any details of the investigation until Feb. 24, after parent and teacher associations, the Songhees Nation, and numerous petition signees voiced concerns around the removal of democratically-elected trustees.

In a five-page letter posted to the district’s website, chair Ryan Painter said they’ve had issues with inappropriate interactions between trustees and district staff since the last board election in late 2018.

A spring 2019 investigation found that some trustees had been exposing their perceived failings of the district by publicly humiliating staff. McNally leaked that report to media and was subsequently censured on March 2, 2020, and suspended from in-camera meetings for a year.

Between January 2019 and April 2021, seven external facilitators worked to mediate between staff and trustees, Painter said.

In May 2021, concerns were again raised about trustees using social media to disparage employees, including the superintendent. Painter said the superintendent’s employment was ended by mutual agreement, in part as a result of the comments.

McNally and Paynter’s suspensions come as a result of July 2021 complaints though, one from secretary-treasurer Kim Morris and another from an unnamed staff member.

Third-party investigator Marcia McNeil said the majority of the comments were made on Twitter and in each case McNally and Paynter had not tried to address their concerns with Morris directly or given her an opportunity to respond.

“It is alarming that public figures, who have a public platform to inform their constituents, would also use that platform as a ‘bully-pulpit’ to shame and embarrass staff, including Ms. Morris, who are unable to meaningfully respond,” McNeil said in her findings.

After receiving her report in January, Painter said McNally and Paynter were given copies and the opportunity to argue their case to the board. Trustees Ann Whiteaker and Nicole Duncan chose not to attend the meetings, beyond the portion of one, and did not vote on the suspension.

At a budget meeting Feb. 22, both women called on Painter to explain to the learning community what authority the board members acted on to make their decision.

“I’ve looked and I’ve been unable to find any provisions that afford this power,” Whiteaker said. Duncan and Whiteaker moved to discuss the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, but the remaining trustees voted to hold off until Feb. 28.

In his letter on Feb. 24, Painter said their decision was in-line with the Workers Compensation Act and its obligation to protect employees from bullying and harassing behaviour.

Numerous SD61 stakeholders have taken issue with the decision though.

The Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association (GVTA), Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, and Songhees Nation each voted to boycott all meetings of the board until they are satisfied the process was appropriate or the suspension is rescinded.

“We are deeply concerned by the suspensions of two democratically elected trustees, and the secrecy surrounding it. We are unaware of any existing legislation that gives the board of trustees the authority to suspend elected members from participation,” GVTA president Winona Waldron said in a statement Feb. 17.

The parent advisory councils’ president Angela Carmichael said Feb. 22 they’re disappointed the principles of democratic governance are no longer being upheld.

Similarly, the Songhees Nation called the lack of transparency “appalling” and in violation of the board’s duty to obtain the consent of First Nations on matters that affect them. It called on Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside to ensure the resignation of the entire board.

“Our children and families deserve better,” the Songhees Nation wrote in a letter Feb. 17.

In response, Whiteside said in a statement that the issue is a local governance matter, but that she expects the board to listen to First Nations and community members and answer their questions.

The Metis Nation of Greater Victoria has not made a formal statement on the issue but chose not to attend Tuesday’s budget meeting. The Esquimalt First Nation has not responded to a request for comment as of publication.

Black Press Media has reached out to the GVTA, Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, and Songhees Nation for comment on the Feb. 24 letter.

McNally and Paynter have declined to comment until they have sought legal counsel. They are suspended until October. The next election for school board trustees happens Oct. 15.

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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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