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Former Comox Valley School District chair defending her ethics

Susan Barr says a report examining the conduct of a former Comox Valley Board of Education that she chaired makes her actions look unethical, something she denies.

"It sounds like I was, well, not ethical," says Barr of a report by now-retired lawyer Lorena Staples. "I believe I acted ethically and correctly throughout this whole thing."

The 10-page report is listed as the Staples Report on the school district website at www.sd71.bc.ca. School district superintendent Sherry Elwood is expected to provide a briefing note about the report and its recommendations to the current board during its Dec. 17 board meeting (7 p.m. at 607 Cumberland Rd. in Courtenay).

The Staples Report outlines Staples' findings from her review of the conduct of trustees during the district's operational review process, which happened in 2009. The past Board of Education that Barr chaired called for that review of its own conduct in June 2011. But it became subject to the direction of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, and was publicly released only a couple of weeks ago.

Staples found that a January 2009 meeting some past trustees had with consultant Gordon Sprott — before going through a Request for Proposals (RFP) process to find a consultant for the district's operational review and ultimately choosing Sprott Consulting Services — was held contrary to the requirements of the School Act and the board's procedural bylaw.

No minutes were kept and district staff were not invited to attend the meeting.

She also concluded that because Sprott assisted trustees in developing criteria for the terms of reference for the review, it would appear "to any reasonable person" that Sprott had an "unfair advantage." As well, the report said Sprott considered the meeting a "marketing opportunity."

The report goes on to say that after then-secretary-treasurer Len Ibbs became aware of a possible perception of bias, he spoke with Barr about his concerns.

"The advice the secretary-treasurer gave to the chairperson was sound advice but was ignored," writes Staples in her report.

Barr admits she called the meeting with Sprott, and she doesn't dispute that it was held contrary to the School Act and the board's procedural bylaw. She says the decision was naive, and in hindsight, was a "stupid thing to do."

But, she points to an e-mail — from her to trustees dated April 11, 2009, inviting them to an April 14 finance committee meeting to provide input for the criteria for that operational review — when she says she did not ignore Ibbs' advice.

"Len's concern is that there should be no perception of bias with whomever the board picks to do this work, and that the criteria list needs to be something our board has developed as opposed to a list of criteria prepared by a specific company that we may have discovered during the research phase of this project," writes Barr in that e-mail, which is not mentioned in the Staples Report.

Barr says the committee crafted an RFP that did not use the information provided by Sprott. According to public minutes from that meeting, the operational review RFP process was on the agenda, but notes simply say "in progress."

The report notes the chair sought a legal opinion about potentially disqualifying Sprott from the RFP process, but was advised against it, "as it might create another set of legal problems."

Barr says this excerpt was not originally in the report but was added in after she requested it; the except is in written in a different font than the rest of the report, making it appear that it was added in later.

The RFP went out in the spring of 2009 and the job was awarded to Sprott Consulting Services that July.

The Staples Report cited various documents such as e-mail correspondence and board meeting minutes, as well as interviews with trustees, district staff and the consultants hired to complete the operational review. Staples notes more than one trustee told her there appeared to be a "time lag" between when Barr and other trustees who had dealt with the consultant saw the operational review and when it was presented to the rest of the board.

"They suspected, but could not prove, that the committee of trustees who had been dealing with the consultant had directed changes to the substance of and not merely the factual information in the report," writes Staples.

The Staples Report also notes the board of the time had "aligned into two factions, with mutual distrust for each other."

Staples recommends more orientation and training for trustees, noting "training in parliamentary procedures, meeting etiquette and the procedural rules in the School Act and the Board Procedural Bylaw should be mandatory for any candidates for the role of chairperson."

She also recommends the board and administration implement better public processes, including better consultation and more transparency.

Staples suggests the district seek legal advice about its current procurement policy — specifically that procedures should ensure fairness in procurement — and that the board amend its conflict of interest policies.

Finally, she suggests the board and district staff commit to a code of ethics.

Barr notes past trustee Fran Goldberg recommended in February 2011 the district look at developing a code of ethics but it was defeated when the board voted.

Barr herself brought forward a motion in March of that same year to develop a purchasing policy, which did go ahead in a narrow vote and is now in place.

"I think I showed integrity and leadership by bringing that forward," she says of the purchasing policy. "So we realized that there were problems with our process and we tried to clean it up so that it wouldn't happen again."

writer@comoxvalleyrecord.com

 

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