By Stan Ashbee
Sunny South News
A group of concerned parents, taxpayers and citizens from Lethbridge County and abroad have formed a coalition — CAGE or the Community Action Group for Education.
It’s purpose and goal moving forward, according to spokesperson Kelly McLeod, is to be a voice for parents, taxpayers and people who want a better education system for their children.
Recently, the group reached out to the public via traditional media and social media online to discuss what they believe is an ongoing issue of a review in progress in regards to allegations against Palliser Regional Schools’ Superintendent Kevin Gietz. The group submitted a letter to the Sunny South News, which explained their collective perspective in regards to the review and other items of concern. The Sunny South News spoke with both McLeod and Palliser Board of Trustees Chair Colleen Deitz.
In the letter, CAGE’s concerns included a January 2016 Calgary Herald report stating the board of trustees was being sued for failing to address allegations against Gietz for alleged, “conduct, which created an oppressive atmosphere.” The letter stated such actions included, “abusive language and demeanour, physical and verbal intimidation, threatening behaviour, as well as unwelcome physical contact of various female employees.”
The letter stated after increasing pressure calling for Gietz’s suspension, partially due to a Change.org petition online, the superintendent, according to the letter, acknowledged the issues and asked Deitz to undertake an independent review of Palliser operations. The letter also stated the board, “failed to disclose the lawsuit to the Minister of Education,” “quietly increased the salary of the superintendent” and “associate superintendents received retroactive pay increases.”
In the letter, the group noted, at the time of the increased salary and retroactive pay schools faced severe staffing reductions and there was a freeze of all school surplus funds to help offset a projected deficit.
In February, the group stated in the letter, the Minister of Education advised Dietz a review of operations was the responsibility of the local board. Fast forward to May 2016, the group stated in the letter, the board has engaged in seven “special meetings,” often in-camera, in addition to five regular board meetings since January. The letter stated, “while there has been talk of a ‘review panel’ to review operations in Palliser, nothing is yet in place.”
The group, McLeod said, is most concerned with the fact this is an ongoing issue.
“Ever since 2008, there was a review done that found the same similar things going on at head office. I guess that’s the biggest frustration right now — the board has known about this for so long and from our view point, has done very little. They renewed his (Superintendent Gietz’s) contract for another five years. I think that’s kind of alarming, especially when Palliser’s mandate for all their students and staff is safe and caring schools. As a parent, my kids come home preaching about be a buddy and not a bully and to have the head superintendent of the school district allegedly taking part in bullying activities, I think sends really a poor message to the kids,” said McLeod.
The board, according to McLeod, has been talking about a review for four months now and nothing is happening — “that we’re aware of,” she added.
“I’m sure with all the special meetings that have gone on, things are happening. I guess a lack of transparency is an issue. The public doesn’t have a clue what’s going on and the board seems fine with that. They seem to like to keep us in the dark, it seems, because there has been no publicity about the status of the review, other than the fact three people have been chosen. And, that’s all we know,” McLeod said. “It was supposed to start Apr. 1 and be done by June 1.”
McLeod said she is a parent and from her perspective she’s been trying to get answers from the board on spending and salary increases and things like that for about two years. “When the Calgary Herald article came out, we kind of formed a concerned parents group, which we started the Change.org petition calling for a review or an investigation of some sort calling for Superintendent Gietz’s suspension, pending the outcome of a review. And then over the past couple of months, it’s come to my attention there’s a lot of other people that aren’t parents actively involved in the situation that are concerned about it and there’s quite a few former staff members, as well. Instead of just calling ourselves ‘concerned parents of Palliser,’ now we’re kind of just a group of citizens that are concerned,” she said.
McLeod also noted the group has a concerned parents Facebook page with over 300 members and the citizens action group has at least another couple of dozen members from former employees to concerned grandparents to taxpayers to just concerned citizens. So far, the group has written letters to the Alberta Minister of Education and has contacted local MLAs in Calgary, Lethbridge and Little Bow.
Deitz said the lawsuit mentioned in the letter from CAGE is towards the board of trustees but is for wrongful dismissal and not in regards to the Gietz allegations.
“There were allegations made in it. The board has done their investigation. When we received the statement of claim it then got turned over to our insurers, who have done their statement of defence and in it has stated they are false and without merit and that’s the standing the board has taken,” she explained.
Currently, the allegations against Gietz are in the process of going through questioning and other legal procedures and it has been postponed and delayed. “We are not sure of a date, when the second day of questioning will transpire. Until that time, we really can’t comment on the case because it is an active legal suit and is before the courts,” Dietz added.
According to Dietz, the board gave associates the same salary of regular staff at one time but had to do an adjustment because there wasn’t really a gap between the highest paid principal and an associate. “You have to have some difference because these guys work 12 months of the year,” she said, as opposed to other positions throughout the school division. “The positions require a lot more time than principals and teachers.”
As for staff reductions noted in CAGE’s concerns in the letter submitted to Sunny South News — that year noted in the letter, Dietz said, Palliser had a reduction of nine per cent of the division’s students.
“We only reduced staff by 4.5 per cent. Any of the schools that had any kind of staffing reductions at the time, were due to a fact they had a reduced number of students,” said Dietz.
Dietz explained Gietz was given a one per cent raise and a one-time one per cent performance increase but all Palliser staff received an increase through a collective agreement at the time.
As for the review mentioned in the letter from CAGE, Dietz said the superintendent came forward to the board and asked for a review at the Jan. 12 meeting. “It was requested we have oversight and supervision by the Minister of Education and the department,” Dietz said, but the board was advised by the department they would not take part in the review and it was up to the board to do it.
At a Feb. 9 meeting, the board decided to set up a committee and established three trustees with oversight from Palliser’s secretary/treasurer to provide administration support but then a new admin support person needed to be selected, as to keep staff clear of the review process. At a Mar. 31 meeting, the committee resubmitted the plan for the review panel. There have been many meetings held since Mar. 31 but Dietz said it takes time for the process to happen. “Governance is a slow moving thing, it takes a lot. There’s so many rumours and gossip and innuendoes out there, no one is looking at the exact facts,” Dietz said.
As for the Change.org petition, Dietz said, she is concerned when out of 588 or so people on the petition, they are not necessarily residents of the school division.
“Some of them were from Europe that signed it. I’m a little reluctant with online petitions, they’re not really legal petitions. All that aside — it does mention the Michelle Gibb case, which is a case again before the courts and we can’t talk about that until that’s settled. I know it’s frustrating but the court system takes a long time and we can’t act on some of the allegations because it is in the courts,” she said.
“I know it’s frustrating for parents but just because you’ve seen it on Facebook does not mean it’s right or true.”
For now, Dietz added, the board doesn’t know what the report will find and if the report deals with personnel those matters cannot be made public.
“Until they go through the report and the FOIP legislation, we have no idea, it will probably be an executive summary that will come out but what it all entails, we don’t know,” Dietz said.