In one of their last acts in advance of the Oct. 16 Municipal Election, Pembina Hills Public Schools trustees have filed complaints with the RCMP, College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) and Alberta Education’s Office of the Registrar regarding allegations of harassment and bullying involving former Supt. Colleen Symyrozum-Watt.
Following an in-camera session at their Sept. 26 meeting in Westlock, trustees agreed to direct the two-member ad hoc committee originally tasked with investigating the allegations to file complaints with all three authorities.
“The board is guided by its responsibility to public, students and staff. That’s why we are following through in the only responsible way we can,” said board chair Jennifer Tuininga, in an e-mail.
“We are ensuring that the appropriate parties are making decisions on how best to respond to the evidence.”
The Westlock News asked the Barrhead RCMP to provide additional details, but they were not able to respond by deadline.
In a weekend interview, Symyrozum-Watt said the last eight months have been very difficult as she came to terms with no longer working for Pembina Hills and all the people who make it a great system for students.
“The board has now chosen to focus its efforts and resources on pursuing a punitive agenda,” Symyrozum-Watt said.
“It has apparently been insufficient for them to attempt to destroy my reputation, which was built over 33 years of work for the district, by terminating me.”
The story of Symyrozum-Watt’s termination goes back to Jan. 27, when Tuininga received reports of allegation and harassment involving the former Supt.
The allegations came to her via the processes outlined in Alberta’s Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act and Pembina Hills’ own Administration Procedure 40-02, which deals with public interest disclosure.
The ad hoc committee was created at a special meeting on Feb. 1 to investigate the allegations. A lawyer was also retained through the Alberta School Boards Association and MNP LLP (Meyers Norris Penny) to conduct an investigation; they reviewed the evidence and interviewed both staff and Symrozum-Watt. In late July, the ad hoc committee submitted its final report, as did the board’s legal counsel. On July 31, the board passed a motion supporting the immediate termination of Symyrozum-Watt’s contract of employment as of that date.
The motion stated Symyrozum-Watt had breached various contractual, board policy and administrative procedure requirements related to per diems, expenses, vacation days and nepotism.
It also stated she had counseled employees to misrepresent information to the board, had engaged in harassment and was dishonest in responding to questions during the formal investigations.
The motion stated these actions had broken the trust of the school board and were not compatible with the values of Pembina Hills, nor the fiduciary obligation and expected conduct of the superintendent.
Tuininga said trustees had been advised that the findings of the independent investigator were of “sufficient concern” to turn them over to the RCMP, the Office of the Registrar and CASS.
“We are ensuring that the appropriate parties are making decisions on how to best respond to the evidence,” she said.
“At all times, the board has worked to ensure that the process was thorough, fair and impartial.”
Symyrozum-Watt said the board is now using public resources to “establish some justification for their actions” rather than use them to improve the educational lives of students.
“At this point, it’s unclear what criminal act they think I’ve committed. But I welcome the investigation by a third party,” she said.
“I expect that reason will finally prevail and the board will finally learn that the process they have led has been fundamentally unfair.”
Tuininga noted she had written in an e-mail to all staff in August that the investigation was the result of people coming forward to report activities “they felt were wrong and not in the best interests of the division.”
She added, “That took courage and was the right thing to do.”
Symyrozum-Watt also confirmed that she is still in the process of preparing a legal claim against PHPS.