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Minister 'deeply concerned' about board members' behaviour

'All options are going to be open to me,' says Ramona Jennex; special meeting called to deal with scandalous revelations
by Stacey Colwell

Ramona Jennex - Education minister
 COUNTY - The minister of Education says "everything is on the table" regarding how she will respond to scandalous revelations about the behaviour of elected members of the South Shore Regional School Board.

 "All options are going to be open to me and I will use the one that is going to be in the best interest of the students of the board," said Ramona Jennex in a July 14 interview.

 At issue were articles from this newspaper based on a freedom of information request which revealed unseemly behind-the-scenes dealings in the weeks leading up to a controversial March 30 board decision not to put any schools under review for possible closure in 2011-12.

 In recent years, two other elected Nova Scotia school boards have been uniformly dismissed by a previous Education minister for unprofessional behaviour, and Ms Jennex would not discount that possibility in this case.

 "It does raise a number of issues, but at this point I'm in the very preliminary stages of investigating this and how this fits under our legislation, so therefore I can't really make a comment about what my action is going to be at this time. I think I need a little bit more time to make sure I have all of the information, and then I will be acting."

 In any case, the Education minister said she was "deeply concerned" about the matter after reading the Lunenburg County Progress Bulletin.

 "It's very important that we have school boards that act professionally and work co-operatively. ... They have to obey a code of ethics. That's what Nova Scotians are expecting and that's what I'm expecting."

 She said the public also deserves the opportunity for discourse on important issues at public meetings.

 "School boards really need to recognize that they serve the needs of our students and our families, and they need to have their debates and their issues brought forward in an open, transparent way."

 Ms Jennex said she understands that individual board members may come to the table with different opinions.

 "Sometimes you can bring [other board members] along and sometimes you can't, but that is the nature of working as a team in a group. You can't be doing things behind the scenes."

 The minister said she hopes the recent behaviour of this elected board is an anomaly, because if it wasn't, "That would be of grave concern."

 However, she did not want to speculate about the possibility of this government eventually considering legislative changes to abolish elected school boards altogether.

 "At this point, I'm working with school boards. They have a legislated place in government."

 In the meantime, the board announced a special public meeting for July 20 at 7:30 p.m. to deal with the freedom of information application and its subsequent media coverage, which communications manager Trish Smith said "led to substantive questions being asked and requiring further discussion of the board that cannot wait until the August meeting."

 She said the only potential disciplinary option available to the board is a public censure of its individual members.

 "That really is the only self-policing mechanism that boards have."

 Meanwhile, Ms Jennex said her staff would be reading about 1,200 pages of documents related to the freedom of information request and preparing a report for her, which she would consider along with the outcome of this week's board meeting before making any final decisions about how she may respond.

 Regardless, the minister made a commitment to take time from her vacation this week to answer questions from the Progress Bulletin following the board meeting.

 "I told my communications person here and also my secretary that I am making myself available to respond to this."

 Last month, this newspaper made a pair of unsuccessful interview requests through Department of Education communications staff for officials to answer questions about the matter, but Ms Jennex said she was never briefed about that.

 "I would have definitely made the time to speak with you."

posted on 07/19/11
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