Trustee’s letter to editor irks Rainbow Board chair, union president

MANITOULIN—Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) Trustee Larry Killens has found himself in hot water with the board he represents, as well as with Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) local president Barb Blasutti.

The trouble stems from a December 19, 2012 letter to editor on page 5 of this newspaper, ‘Larry Killens weighs in on strike.’

In the letter’s last paragraph, Mr. Killens addresses the teachers, “Please postpone your understandable actions in dealing with your issues of a government that is not well right now. Please return, stop the walkouts and be there for our kids until stability in our society is returned.”

Mr. Killens received a letter signed by Ms. Blasutti through Doreen Dewar, chair of the RDSB, dated December 20—one day after the letter appeared in The Expositor.

“How Trustee Killens believes he can speak “on his own behalf” and not as a trustee, all while clearly identifying himself as a trustee both at the beginning and end of the article, is beyond baffling,” Ms. Blasutti writes. “When one is elected to a position, one does not have the luxury or ability to “step outside” of that role because it is convenient to do so. To think otherwise is naïve. To do otherwise is misleading and deceptive.”

She goes on to question how a trustee can express an individual opinion in the media when those opinions do not reflect the opinion of the board as a whole.

“I would also like to make clear the fact that many members of the ETFO Rainbow teacher local share my shock and anger at this letter,” Ms. Blasutti’s letter continues. “Teachers on Manitoulin Island are infuriated that their elected official would act with such careless disdain for his role and with such disregard for parents, students and teachers.”

She goes on to claim that Mr. Killens’ letter made reference to the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. (The Expositor failed to find any correlation between the letter and the recent school shooting tragedy.)

“As president of the local, I am distressed that a representative of the board has publicly made statements about our job action,” she continued. “Members of a union have a legal right to engage in strike activities—to publicly decry our rights can be construed as interference under the OLRB (Ontario Labour Relations Board).”

When contacted for comment, Ms. Blasutti said she wrote the letter to Ms. Dewar after having received phone calls from Manitoulin teachers in complaint of the letter and said she “acted on behalf of our members and through the appropriate channels,” adding that the media was not the place to be discussing the situation. “As far as I’m concerned, the matter is over,” she said.

Following Ms. Blasutti’s concern, Mr. Killens received two letters from board chair Dewar on February 4, advising him of governance bylaw 8.17 which states: “The Chair of the Board is the spokesperson to the public on behalf of the Board, unless otherwise determined by the Board. No other Trustee shall speak on behalf of the Board unless expressly authorized by the Chair of the Board to do so.”

“When you choose to address the sensitive topic of labour relations in the public forum of a letter to the editor, you directly and deliberately contravened bylaw 8.17,” Ms. Dewar writes.

“Furthermore, as a member of the Labour Relations Committee, your public comments about teachers raised the ire of our federations,” she continued. “This was most unfortunate given the current labour relations clime across Ontario…Your labour may have caused irreparable harm to our harmonious working relationship with our federations.”

After receiving Mr. Blasutti’s letter, Mr. Killens told The Expositor he took it upon himself to find out if it was true that Manitoulin’s teachers were “infuriated” with him over the letter, calling 30 teachers, both retired and active, to ask their opinion of him based on Ms. Blasutti’s comments. While some said they had no opinion on the matter, as they had not read the president’s letter, the majority said they were pleased with Mr. Killens’ role as Island trustee, he explained. “I want to know, ‘I’m a doing the job for you, or am I letting you down?’” Mr. Killens questioned.

The trustee wrote Ms. Blasutti a letter back, stating: “Rainbow District School Chair Doreen Dewar has accepted your complaint at face value without question and I am prevented on commenting on action taken as a result, but I can say it troubles me. To enhance your compliance with my request, if you supply the documentation to back your innuendos, and they are proven to be true, I will tender my resignation or will not enter the race for trustee in the next election.”

He has yet to hear a reply from Ms. Blasutti.

The Expositor spoke with Ms. Dewar regarding her letter to Mr. Killens and any action the board might take against him should he continue to publish letters to the editor in Northern newspapers.

“When you swear an oath in accordance to the Education Act, one of the things you agree to do is to follow the policies of the board…every trustee has to face this,” she said. “Boards of trustees are different. They act only as a body—they have no individual power to do things. You have to act as a corporate body.”

“I understand that trustees want to keep their ‘constituents’ informed, but the main goal should be the students,” Ms. Dewar continued, adding that trustees, when speaking out, should always ask themselves ‘how is this going to benefit the students?’

The chair noted that there are things that can be done to prevent Mr. Killens from speaking out further as a trustee, such as a censure, but that the board chose not to go that route with the December 19 letter, rather asking him that “more care be taken” in the future.

“We’re not trying to muzzle him, we welcome his opinions within a board meeting setting,” she continued. “Opinions should always be expressed by the chair of the board at the direction of the trustees—that’s how you influence the board. I can’t just write you a letter and say ‘this and this and this,’ I can only write on behalf of the board under instruction of the board.”

“Perhaps trustees should be a little more sensitive,” the chair added.

When asked for a legal opinion, The Expositor’s counsel advised that the board cannot stop him from talking as school boards have little control over a breach of its Code of Conduct, nor can they remove him as a trustee. The board can, however, censure Mr. Killens (ie. issue a public statement from the board disapproving his action) or bar him from attending meetings of the board.

“I agree that the board chair is the only spokesperson—she’s bang on, but I don’t agree that I can’t speak out,” Mr. Killens told The Expositor. “I respectfully say she is in error of the bylaw. I invite her to censure me, then it would go to a hearing.”

“I feel very strongly that I have to advocate on behalf of the parents—I did nothing but compliment the teachers in that letter.”

Alicia McCutcheon

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