Original Published 19:35 May 25, 2022

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A Winnipeg school board is down three trustees since the start of 2022, following the recent resignation of the chairperson and the suspension of a member.

The Pembina Trails School Division entered the 2021-22 academic year with a full roster of nine elected officials. Now, there are only six active board members governing a district that oversees the education of more than 15,000 K-12 students.

During a meeting on May 12, chairwoman Kathleen McMillan’s letter of resignation — in which she writes that her decision to leave is “of a personal nature” — was read into record and accepted by the board.

Trustees voted to sanction and suspend Gerry Melnyk, the longest-serving trustee in the division, in connection to an outburst at a previous event.

The division did not put out a news release about the changes. It has not yet published the minutes of the first May meeting, citing standard protocol requiring the board to approve such records at the start of the following regular conference.

In a prepared statement, newly appointed chairwoman Dianne Zuk acknowledged “a number of governance matters” took place earlier this month.

“I thank the board for its confidence in me and offer my assurances that we will continue working with all stakeholders in the Pembina Trails community to provide our students with the best child-centred education possible.”

Zuk did not provide specifics about the penalties issued to Melnyk or what prompted them. She only indicated the longtime trustee has been sanctioned and suspended for 90 days because he breached codes of conduct laid out by the Public Schools Act and Pembina Trails. Melnyk could not be reached.

Meeting minutes show that at a public meeting on April 28, the Ward 1 trustee alleged a claim that there was content missing from a log of their March 10 conference, claimed senior administrators “purposely misrepresented the meeting proceedings,” called a witness from the public to support his claims, and then distributed documents to trustee colleagues in defiance.

The then-chairwoman, McMillan reassured Melnyk the board had been provided with an electronic transcript of proceedings that matched written minutes, but he did not accept that and later ignored a “point of order.”

A record of a meeting on May 2 shows Melnyk issued an apology.

“Trustee Melnyk apologized for his comments… and retracted his unfounded allegations about the senior admin team and board coverup,” it states.

When reached Tuesday, McMillan said her departure is not connected to the above events.

“Physically, mentally, my time has come,” said the 65-year-old. “I had a terrific run. I really, really enjoyed my experience as an elected official.”

McMillan, who has served as a vice-chairwoman and chairwoman, was first elected in 2014. She was the main spokesperson for the board throughout nearly two mid-pandemic school years, a superintendent search and the dismissal of trustee Sheila Billinghurst.

In late January, the board announced Billinghurst’s seat had become vacant due to the Ward 2 trustee’s failure to attend an in-person meeting in three months.

“It’s a shame — because if the Bill 64 repeal and that whole saga related to the education review taught us anything, it seems like the public wants to have a say in education and they want their voice to be heard,” said Cameron Hauseman, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, who researches educational administration.

Hauseman said trustees are often “the last line of defence” for community members when it comes to solving issues in the K-12 system. Noting that reality, he said, it is “very troubling” that one-third of the board is inactive.

It is also concerning the board was not transparent about these changes right after they happened, he said.

Both Pembina Trails and the Winnipeg School Division have issued news releases about board vacancies earlier this year.

“They are all public servants and their ability to do their job effectively demands that they earn or maintain the public trust. If they are unable to do so, then we’re in a lot of trouble,” Hauseman added.

This item reprinted with permission from Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba