Role re­view

Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Doug Cur­rie says he look­ing at the role his deputy min­is­ter plays with Pub­lic Schools Branch af­ter in­ter­nal emails re­veal heavy in­volve­ment in school re­view

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY TERESA WRIGHT

Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Doug Cur­rie says he is re­view­ing the role of his deputy min­is­ter, who also acts as chair of the Pub­lic Schools Branch, amid con­cerns about con­flict of in­ter­est.

Su­san Willis has been serv­ing as deputy min­is­ter of ed­u­ca­tion since July 2015, but she later also be­came chair of the board of direc­tors of the Pub­lic Schools Branch (PSB) af­ter the new Ed­u­ca­tion Act was im­ple­mented in 2016.

The act stip­u­lates the deputy min­is­ter of ed­u­ca­tion must be ap­pointed chair of the board of the PSB.

But con­cerns have been raised about Willis car­ry­ing both ti­tles, as the PSB was cre­ated to be an arms length agency from gov­ern­ment to op­er­ate Is­land schools af­ter the for­mer English school board was dis­solved.

This con­cern was a re­oc­cur­ing theme raised by the pub­lic dur­ing con­sul­ta­tion meet­ings held ear­lier this year as part of the P.E.I. school re­view.

Cur­rie ad­mits there is a per­cep­tion of con­flict in­volv­ing th­ese po­si­tions, and that’s why he is now re­view­ing the gov­er­nance struc­ture of the Pub­lic Schools Branch and how it in­volves the deputy min­is­ter.

“I like the fact that there’s over­sight, and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the pub­lic schools branch and the depart­ment is stronger now than it’s ever been, but I do re­spect, through the pub­lic meet­ings and th­ese types of in­ter­views, that there is per­ceived con­flict, hav­ing the deputy in that role as chair,” Cur­rie told The Guardian in an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day.

“Right now we’re look­ing at how can we con­tinue to sup­port the cur­rent gov­er­nance struc­ture but look at some­body in that role, other than the deputy, that would not cre­ate that per­ceived con­flict.”

Con­cerns about Willis wear­ing both hats as deputy min­is­ter and chair of the PSB were fanned this week af­ter emails were re­leased through free­dom of in­for­ma­tion that re­veal Willis was heav­ily in­volved in help­ing to draft the five cat­e­gory II change study reports au­thored by PSB of­fi­cials Bob An­drews and Parker Grim­mer, re­leased in Jan­uary 2017.

The emails show An­drews send­ing drafts of the reports to var­i­ous gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Cur­rie’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer, the pre­mier’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor and

clerk of ex­ec­u­tive coun­cil, Paul Led­well.

An­drews stip­u­lates in the emails spe­cific changes he made to different rec­om­men­da­tions at the be­hest of Willis, in­clud­ing one “re­gard­ing high school re­zon­ing” in Char­lot­te­town.

That fi­nal rec­om­men­da­tion pushed high school re­zon­ing to an un­spec­i­fied fu­ture date.

Cur­rie ex­plained it was nec­es­sary to en­sure high schools were not rec­om­mended be­cause high school re­zon­ing is a much more dif­fi­cult and in­volved process than re­zon­ing el­e­men­tary and in­ter­me­di­ate stu­dents.

But Op­po­si­tion ed­u­ca­tion critic Steven My­ers, who ob­tained the emails from free­dom of in­for­ma­tion, says they show gov­ern­ment was in­ti­mately in­volved in the school re­view, even while Cur­rie and Pre­mier Wade MacLauch­lan were stat­ing pub­licly they would not in­ter­fere in the process.

“All along we were told the pub­lic was go­ing to get a chance to present their con­cerns and that the re­port and rec­om­men­da­tions were go­ing to be based on what the pub­lic wanted, but when you look at the emails, you can see that be­hind the scenes the drafts were be­ing changed at the re­quest of Su­san (Willis),” My­ers said.

“All th­ese things were clearly or­ches­trated be­hind the scenes, and it just looks like they put on a cha­rade so the pub­lic would think they had some sort of in­put into this.”

Cur­rie stressed the pub­lic’s in­put did play a great role in the fi­nal out­come, point­ing to the fact a “high vol­ume” of the rec­om­men­da­tions in the cat­e­gory II reports did not make it into the PSB board of direc­tors’ fi­nal rec­om­men­da­tions.

Also, gov­ern­ment lis­tened to Islanders’ con­cerns about school clo­sures and did not close schools, Cur­rie added.

As for why com­mu­ni­ca­tions staff was in­cluded in the emails, Cur­rie ex­plained that be­cause the PSB has no com­mu­ni­ca­tions staff of its own, it was nec­es­sary to use gov­ern­ment re­sources to help en­sure the pub­lic and me­dia had all the in­for­ma­tion they needed.



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