Sabotage Or Just Bad Luck – You Be The Judge

Was Rangiora High School doing well in 2014?  Yes it was! So well in fact that the Prime Minister John Key paid us a very high-profile visit that coincided with the Government’s announcement of an $18M funding allocation for the region’s first Modern Learning Environment. So, like all good families we hid our dirty laundry and decked out in our Sunday best we presented a united front – we played ‘Happy Families’ for the camera.

When relationships break down there is always fault on both sides. The genesisof the tensions that existed around the Board table at Rangiora High School can be found 2012. Hind sight is 20/20 and when I look back I see so glaringly my own faults rising like giant red welts on the skin of my own ego – such is the rectitude of the reflexive practitioner.

I could have, should have done things differently. It would be an understatement to say relationships around our Board table were tense. While I recognised that tension I did not seek to ameliorateit.  With the insight of hindsight it would be fair to say that I completely underestimated the depth of dislike three particular Board members had for me and the devastating impact that would have not only on me but the students, staff and community of Rangiora High School.

The cause of the deterioration in my relationships with these three Board members can be attributed to a number of issues and no doubt our views would differ on these reasons and/or their significance. I appreciate that these individuals felt that I was difficult and controlling, the expression being that “it’s Peggy’s way or no way”. For these individuals their perception was their reality and they shared that reality generously and publicly.

Of most significance to me was the flawed decision making processes the Board employed around the management of the school’s assets. All decisions were made in the Public Excluded section of Board meetings, a useful strategy for avoiding public scrutiny or criticism. 

 

I was consistently viewed as being obstructive when in fact my job as CEO was to protect the Board from risk. Fortunately these issues did not impact on the school’s day-to-day management but they did impact on my senior leadership team who often witnessed the heavy toll the stress placed on me. This led me to contact the School Trustees Association’s industrial advisor, for assistance.

The Advisor wrote to the Board Chair in February 2012 outlining her impressions as to the best way forward given what appeared to her to be the “current impasse and conflict regarding the purchase of a second school farm”. This led to an informal mediation in March 2012 which involved full and frank discussion and a commitment to building positive relationships. I was conscious from my part of the need to improve relationships and was keen for the Board to work as a team. The undertakings given by the Board of support for their principal did not eventuate.

I also met with Ministry of Education property staff in February 2012 to discuss the significant issues of overcrowding and the fact that our roll projections indicated a steady increase until 2015. This increase was on top of the enrolment of displaced students from Christchurch following the February 2011 earthquake. The Board owned three significant properties that were considered for refurbishment to accommodate this roll growth.  I had discussions within the senior leadership team and made a submission to the Board in July 2012 that the Board consider the appropriation of the Rangiora High School Nursery School land and building for high school purposes, as was appropriate under the Licence to Occupy.

It was the Board’s intention to exchange the Wales Street site for another Board property located at 107 Kippenberger Avenue and adjacent to the new subdivision located on the school land sold in 2007.  The Board mooted a partnership with the Nursery School Trust to build a more satisfactory early childhood facility with larger grounds. It was my view that this could have been a win/win situation for both parties.

This proposal met the educational needs of the students at Rangiora High School and was unanimously adopted by the Board. The Nursery School Trust, legally an agent of the Board, made public claims that they owned this school asset valued at $800,000. This was historically and factually incorrect but did not stop Trust members launching a divisive campaign called “Save Our Nursery School.” As public criticism grew more personal and vitriolic some Board members vacillated and two camps emerged around the Board table. The hostile Board members publicly described me as being “difficult”, an “empire builder” and “having a stranglehold on the school.” I was aware that these individual members were having off-site coffee meetings in Rangiora at which they would express these views about me adding to my public vilification in my local community.

The position I took on the issue was subsequently vindicated, and the Nursery School Trust had to accept that its legal status was that of a tenant in a Board owned building on Board owned land. It was stressful at the time holding a position as the school’s CEO that was in the best interests of our school and students but was viewed by many in the community as an anathema. I was not protected by my Board and as a result my reputation was impugned and my professional standing damaged.

The position I took on the issue was subsequently vindicated, and the Nursery School Trust had to accept that its legal status was that of a tenant in a Board owned building on Board owned land. It was stressful at the time holding a position as the school’s CEO that was in the best interests of our school and students but was viewed by many in the community as an anathema. I was not protected by my Board and as a result my reputation was impugned and my professional standing damaged.

In spite of the Board’s dysfunction I had met with considerable success managing the school’s multi-million dollar asset portfolio.

 

As tension and stress grew I recognised that while I enjoyed this delegated aspect of my job it was not my core business. As the educational leader I saw the sense in delineating the two roles with the Principal being responsible for educational leadership and a CEO being appointed to manage the school’s significant non-educational assets.

At the October 2014 Board meeting we had a wide-ranging discussion around support for the Board in dealing with these issues. There was a preference for low-level assistance that would help to review how the Board was managing the school’s significant reserves. It was agreed the Board would benefit from the assistance of a Financial Advisor to develop an agreed strategy for the management of the Farmland Capital reserves and other school assets. It was agreed that the school was functioning well, however, there needed to be a change in the way we managed relationships around the Board table. Discussions were initiated with Director of Education for Canterbury, Coralanne Childs at the Christchurch Office of the Ministry of Education.

The Board elections were scheduled for 14 November 2014. There were 10 people who had registered interest and were accepted as candidates. The composition of the Board at that time was: Mark Scown (Chair), Warren Newbury, Jo Ashby, Diane Collier-Robinson, Matt James, Leanne Newsome, Ross Sparks, Thomas Tripp (Staff Trustee), Michael Heron (Student Trustee – Outgoing), Sophie Marsh (Student Trustee Elect) and myself.

On the 3rd of November 2014 shortly before the elections Matt James tendered his resignation. Jo Ashby and Ross Sparks both tendered their resignations on the 5th of November 2014. Their intentions had not previously been signalled to me or to the Board Chair.  It has always been my view that the purpose was to destabilise the Board election process and compromise the ability of the Board to continue without Ministry intervention.

The Board Chair and I sought clarification from the Ministry of Education and were advised to proceed with the election because these vacated positions could be filled as there were sufficient candidates in the election process. At the time we were assured by Director of Education for Canterbury, Coralanne Childs that this situation would not affect the level of intervention proposed and agreed to by the Ministry of Education …

To Be Continued …

Written by Dr Peggy Burrows

I am a leader and enjoy the challenges leadership offer. My leadership journey began in the classroom in 1981, saw me sitting on the Bench in the District Court for 10 years as a member of the Deportation review Tribunal, as a member of NAWAC and as a member of the Aoraki Conservation Board. For the past 40 years I have touched the lives of thousands of people in a myriad of positive ways. Through success and adversity I have lived my leadership role and believe as a servant leader I have made a difference.