Near North board ‘well on way’ to addressing ombudsman report (North Bay Nugget)

May 13, 2020

13 May 2020

The Near North District School Board “is well on the way” to meeting all the recommendations contained in an ombudsman’s report.

PJ Wilson
This link opens in a new tabNorth Bay Nugget
May 13, 2020

The Near North District School Board “is well on the way” to meeting all the recommendations contained in an ombudsman’s report.

The report, received by the board in 2019, included 14 recommendations to address issues of transparency and accountability.

Four of the recommendations have been implemented and Near North chairman Jay Aspin says all but one is expected to be addressed within the next month.

The final recommendation, addressing administrative policies, will be completed well before the end of the year, Aspin says.

“I am really satisfied” with the progress to address the issues, Aspin said following a committee of the whole meeting Tuesday.

The provincial ombudsman was asked to step in and look at the activities of the previous board in response to a vote to close Widdifield Secondary School, as well as complaints of lack of transparency around its decision.

Ombudsman Paul Dubé said the September 2017 decision, which prompted 11 complaints to the Ombudsman’s Office in the spring of 2018, was the result of actions that were “unreasonable, unjust, wrong and contrary to law.

“The credibility of the entire consolidation process and closure process was undermined by the board’s failure to share relevant information, and ultimately generated public distrust in its final decision,” Dubé said in his report.

According to the ombudsman’s final report, the investigation reviewed the various steps the board took in considering the consolidation of its three North Bay secondary schools, beginning in 2016.

“By June 2017, trustees were considering a committee’s recommendation that a different school be closed. There was no information publicly available to explain why, by September, Widdifield had become the target for closure.”

Dubé’s report reveals that trustees held a closed-door “workshop” meeting on July 13, 2017, during which the schools and other matters were discussed.

They received an email six days later informing them that an architect had confirmed expanding Widdifield was not feasible.

“None of this was ever made public,” Dubé points out. “The community was deprived of the opportunity to respond or be consulted on the new information considered by trustees in the summer of 2017.”

The report, titled Lessons Not Learned, called for changes to governance policies, bylaws and preparing agendas.

Education director Craig Myles said there were no complications in meeting the ombudsman’s recommendations, although the COVID-19 situation was “an obstacle.

“Staff have been finding a way around it,” he said, but “we don’t interpret that as a game-changer.”

Board members also were told that a report to Education Minister Stephen Lecce had been completed as part of a series of three reports required by the province.

The report – the other two are due in September and December – is in response to a special advisers’ report on the board’s governance, leadership, human resources practices and financial accountability.

The report cited nepotism and “suspect” hiring practices at the board. The investigation was requested by the board.

Based on comments from more than 2,200 people, including board members, senior leadership, families, students, staff, board committees, unions and staff associations, the advisers concluded that an absence of “effective leadership” at Near North has manifested itself through lack of clarity, consistency and confidence from the public and staff, combined with “significant shortcomings” in communication, governance and human resources practices.

Staff also flagged “suspect” practices involving hiring and promotions, with the advisers reporting that comments were made around nepotism and an “in crowd.”

Aspin said the board has been “fully co-operating” with the ministry in providing input and the regular updates on implementation of recommendations.

“This is highly needed to create a solid, functional, successful organization,” Aspin said, saying that while the board is required to submit the reports, “it is imperative that we do so.

“It’s a demonstration of due diligence (and reflects) a lot of efforts going on behind the scenes” by board staff in preparing the reports.