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Is conflict of interest affecting P.E.I. schools, Minister asking

FILE PHOTO: Susan Willis,
FILE PHOTO: Susan Willis,

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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