dirty laundry of school board politics has been exposed through a freedom of information request from this newspaper. 

A bin

der full of e-mails between South Shore Regional School Board members in the weeks leading up to a controversial March 30 decision not to put any schools under review for possible closure this year revealed proposals for secret meetings, paranoia, arm-twisting, lobbying and backroom deals – some apparently before the identification reports on which the decision was supposed to be based were even presented to board members – and much without the knowledge of staff, the elected chairman or the vice-chairman.

Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthy-lake, whose e-mails were also obtained through the same freedom of information request and revealed nothing out of the ordinary, explained last week the elected members had initially received draft identification reports a week before the March 30 public meeting.

“Each was to be presented, discussed, debated and received individually on March 30. That did not happen.”

Instead, Max Rafuse made a speech about saving rural schools and Karen Reinhardt put forward a blanket motion not to review any of the dozen under consideration, a motion ultimately supported by 10 of the 12 board members. Chairman Elliott Payzant and vice-chairman Gary Mailman were the lone dissenters.

 However, the trail of e-mails reveals how that came to pass.

“I spoke with Elliott last night and I am 95 per cent sure he is going to vote to leave Pentz and Petite off the list to be reviewed,” said a March 10 e-mail from Mr. Rafuse to Ms Reinhardt.

“I think I convinced him it would be in his best interest if he wants to save North Queens he had best leave the others alone.”

Mr. Rafuse said he believed at least three other board members would do the same.

“You need to work on Herb [Seymour]. That will give us seven votes which is all we need.”

Ms Reinhardt responded, “That is great news, and I hope you’re right. I will talk to Herb.”

By March 24, she was proposing a secret meeting of the board.

“I’d like to invite you for tea and cookies at my house on Sunday afternoon, from 2 to 4 PM. My idea is that we could have a good, free-wheeling discussion about the ID reports. … It’s the only chance we’ll have for this kind of discussion, before we go public.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Rafuse had e-mailed Ms Reinhardt to say another board member “will vote not to review any school. That’s six votes. Need one more.”

She responded later that night by saying, “started an e-mail to you, but I am a bit paranoid about sending it to an ssrsb site. maybe you should call me. or I’ll call you.”

The next morning, Mr. Payzant told Ms Reinhardt her idea for a secret meeting would be inappropriate, and she then agreed to cancel it.

Subsequent correspondence from Mr. Rafuse to Butch MacLeod said, “Why can’t we discuss what we want without the watchful eyes that limits what is said?”

However, the secrecy continued.

“Would you have the time/inclination to talk toAllen [sic], Mustapha, and/or Jill, to see how they would feel about the motion we talked about?” said a March 26 e-mail from Ms Reinhardt to Mr. MacLeod.

That meeting was something he had actually proposed back on February 27, saying, “I think the four of us should get together to discuss out [sic] thoughts on Mill Village and Greenfield. Personally, I would like to get them off the review list or find some way to keep them open. What do you think.”

It’s unclear whether or not that meeting actually took place, although Allan Foster responded, “These schools which will go under review will be chosen by the board at a meeting,” and Mustapha Maynard said it was a “good idea.”

What is clear is Mr. MacLeod e-mailed the superintendent on March 23 asking her if she was aware of a rumoured meeting between Queens County members that he had “no recollection” of, after he was questioned about it by a pair of unidentified board members.

“I only know what the two of them questioned me on,” said his response after Ms Pynch-Worthylake noted only a formal board work session.

“As both said it was second hand information but were wondering if the Queens members were having secret meetings. Alan [sic] and I assured them both that we had no idea of any meeting. I guess some members are getting paranoid.”

Following the March 30 vote which killed the process, Ms Reinhardt sent a series of e-mails thanking a handful of board members for their support.

“Well, it actually worked!” said a note to Mr. Rafuse and Mr. Seymour.

“Thanks for all your hard work and support for a motion that we know was the right thing to do. Without you two to stick with it, I wouldn’t have had the courage to continue. Facebook is ringing with relief and cheers.”

She also thanked Jill Francis for her support, “both moral, and voting,” and told Dan Hudson, “In a way, it was a ‘damn the consequences’ thing, and it took a lot of courage for us all to take that stand.”

Dr. John Jenkins responded to another of her thank-you e-mails by saying, in part, “We’ll have to figure out the future budget savings some other way. … Good move on this one, Karen.”

When then Education minister Karen Casey disbanded the elected Strait board in 2008 due to internal problems, Mr. Payzant was president of the provincial school board association, and he said the issues raised through these freedom of information documents are similar.

“I think that there are quite a few ways in which it compares,” said the chairman in a recent interview, adding if this board does not change its path, it may be headed down the same road.

“I don’t think it’s imminent that this board will suffer the same fate. I think if this kind of behaviour continued, that there would be a real danger there.”

Still, Mr. Payzant said he hopes to have an opportunity to address these issues internally, but “if this kind of thing continues, then I think the minister won’t have any choice but to be involved.”

He said this matter has raised questions about a number of sections of the board’s bylaws and code of ethics which may have been broken.

“I think if they weren’t violated, they were really stretched.”

It also made him consider whether or not similar things had happened regarding other important issues in recent years.

“Of course it raises doubts … it is a concern, because to my way of thinking it’s not the way that a school board should do business.”

Mr. Payzant said he was particularly troubled by the fact not all board members were in the loop.

“I received practically none of [the e-mails], personally, and I think the vice-chair didn’t either.”

Regarding Mr. Rafuse’s apparent threat regarding North Queens, a school in the chairman’s district, Mr. Payzant said, “If Max thought it was a threat, well, he was wrong, because having a school under review to me is not a threat. … Reviewing a school, in many cases, results in a better school.”

He said the e-mail proposing the secret meeting at Ms Reinhardt’s house was one of the few he received, but that “there were apparently other meetings that I didn’t know about.”

Another troubling issue for the chairman was that members would be lobbied to vote a certain way before the reports were even received.

“I do know that they called other board members to try to sway their votes.”

He said that disappointed him.

“If I were a staff member, I’d be wondering about the value of doing those types of reports for a board who makes a decision without looking at the reports upon which the decision is to be based. That’s a major concern to me. I think we wasted staff’s time … in the end, the identification reports really had nothing to do with the decision.”

A longtime school board superintendent and consultant who has presented numerous workshops about board governance said one of the key characteristics of an effective board is making its decisions in a public setting.

“That’s to say they don’t make their decision before they get into the public session. They should have their debate and their considerations of any issues in the public once the meeting is called to order,” said Dr. Jim Gunn.

When asked about what happened with the South Shore board in particular, he replied, “I’ve described what I call best practice or the characteristic of an effective school board. If they do something other than that, then I can’t call it effective.”

The president of a prominent public policy think tank said it seems clear in this case that some board members felt the need to protect their local schools and probably felt that’s what they were elected to do.

“I would disagree with that characterization. They were elected to represent the entire board and make decisions based on evidence,” said Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“The problem is that when you make these kind of decisions or you undertake these kind of tactics in one instance, what’s to say you’re not going to use them the next time and the next time, and so you’ve now moved away from the ideal for school board administration, which is you make evidence-based decisions, you do it rationally and on the basis of what’s in the best interest of all the students in your care and not what’s in the best interest of your electoral possibilities and-or your local community.”

He said the matter should have been handled by the entire board in a formal setting.

“That being said, it’s not uncommon for board members to talk to each other, it’s not uncommon for politicians at every level – school board, municipal, provincial and federal – to kind of do a little bit of this horse trading … I think the fact that most of it happened behind closed doors and some of it may or may not appear to be a little heavy-handed is probably going to strike a certain per cent of the population as untoward, and that’s the reason why it’s far better to have these types of conversations in open session, or at the very least, in a formal session of the board that is in camera.”

Mr. Cirtwill said it is a totally valid position to be opposed to any potential school closure, but that board members can’t lose sight of following proper protocols.

“What if they had made a staffing decision in this manner? What if they had decided to get rid of the superintendent or put pressure on the superintendent to get rid of an [employee]? What if the individual board members had taken a dislike to a specific principal? This is not how you want this stuff handled.”

Or, what if a decision had been made to close 12 schools in this manner?

“That’s a perfect question to ask.”

The Department of Education and Minister Ramona Jennex declined interview requests.

“The ultimate arbiter of the appropriate behaviour of school boards is the minister, and so if they have engaged in unethical activities, and I’m not saying they have, but if they have, or if they have violated their bylaws, then it is entirely the minister’s responsibility to do something about it,” said Mr. Cirtwill, pointing out elected boards in both the Strait region and Halifax have been dismissed in recent years.

“It is clear that the minister and the department see their role as to ensure that boards operate according to the rules. So if rules have been violated, there is no grey area. It’s the minister’s responsibility to fix it, not the board’s.”