Two school trustees are in a B.C. courtroom this week looking to get their suspensions for harassment and bullying overturned.
Wednesday saw the start of a three-day-long civil proceeding where Greater Victoria trustees Diane McNally and Rob Paynter are looking to be reinstated after the Greater Victoria School District board passed a resolution to suspend them in February.
With the suspensions lasting until October, when trustee elections will be held, the officials are characterizing the discipline as the SD61 board essentially removing them from office. They contend the board does not have those powers under the School Act and even if it did, such punishments are disproportionate and unreasonable responses to their conduct.
Paynter’s civil case got underway on Wednesday and McNally’s lawyer is expected to present on Thursday.
“The primary issue on this petition is whether a school board has the authority to suspend a trustee,” Paynter’s lawyer Nicholas Vaartnou said in his opening statements on Tuesday.
He added the School Act doesn’t expressly provide boards with such authority, so the question will be whether they have implied powers to do so.
“My submission is that the School Act does not provide that authority,” Vaartnou said. “My client’s position aligns with the more fundamental principle that democratically elected officials answer to the electorate, and the decision to suspend an official is antithetical to the form of government that’s been put in place for the public school system.”
The lawyer would go on to lay out the sequence of events leading up to the February resolution, including how Paynter’s comments critical of school district staff – both at public meetings and on social media – led to complaints and a third-party investigation. The two trustees were suspended after a report from that investigation substantiated complaints that the trustees had violated certain bullying and harassment bylaws.
Vaartnou purported that the board’s reasoning for the suspension was quickly shifting before and after the resolution vote, the discipline went beyond the third-party investigator’s findings and how changing reasoning made it hard for Paynter to know the allegations against him.
“It was not until the response petition that the board provided a clear statement of the claims being made against trustee Paynter,” Vaartnou said. “I submit that the board’s failure to clearly define the alleged misconduct prevented trustee Paynter from understanding the case he had to meet and respond to those allegations.”
The trustee’s lawyer said his client also challenges the merits of the discipline because if suspension power does exist, it should only be used in “extraordinary” circumstances and as “a matter of last resort.”
“The suggestion that my client engaged in ongoing misconduct is, in my submission, simply false and unsubstantiated and the decision to suspend is wholly disproportionate with the conduct at issue.”
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