Grievance against local principal and Limestone Board can go ahead

École James R. Henderson Public School, a Limestone District School Board school located on Henderson Boulevard in Kingston’s west end. Image via Google Maps.

The Limestone District School Board (LDSB) lost its bid to dismiss a grievance which alleges, among other things, that a principal abused their management rights this past spring and that the school board failed to exercise its management rights “lawfully” under the “statutes and regulations of Ontario.”

The ongoing grievance came about when the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) alleged that the principal of École James R. Henderson Public School abused their management rights by purposely placing teachers in unfavourable teaching assignments to force them to retire, resign, or transfer. The LDSB had requested that the grievance be dismissed, arguing that the events, which occurred in late spring 2023, “occurred in previous school years… and [therefore] the policy grievance is either untimely or the Federation has abandoned any possible right to grieve past events.”

Arbitrator Paula Knopf wrote in her decision of Wednesday, Nov.29, 2023, “Although the merits of the grievance are not being considered at this stage, the chronology and undisputed factual context [are] required to explain why the School Board’s request to dismiss the grievance has been denied.”

Knopf noted, “Since the grievance relates to the actions of one specific Principal and seeks… the removal of the Principal from that role, the Principal was given notice of this hearing and given status to intervene.”

In the spring, principals in each school are responsible for assigning teachers to their grades and other teaching assignments. Per the LDSB collective agreement, teachers submit “preferences” that are “considered” by the principals before assignments for the coming September are finalized. The “preferences” are not guaranteed. 

According to Knopf’s decision, “In May of 2023, the Principal of École James R. Henderson Public School assigned two teachers to grades that did not match their stated preferences. The teachers then tried to persuade the Principal to reassign them to the grades they had taught or been teaching in the previous year(s).”

According to Knopf, on May 5, 2023, the Principal provided (in an email) a rationale for the challenged assignment and finished by saying, “If you are wondering, no, I am not trying to get you to transfer out — although if you chose to do so or look into a 1-year exchange, I would completely understand. If that had been my goal, your teaching assignment would be a dog’s breakfast of planning time… which you saw me do at one point.” (“Planning time” refers to taking over for another teacher in the classroom during that teacher’s scheduled preparation time.)

The grievance was filed on May 8, 2023, and requested “remedies that include, but are not limited to” the following:

  • A declaration that the school board violated the collective agreement and relevant regulations;
  • Damages for the breach of the collective agreement;
  • Immediate removal of the principal from the school and from any other leadership position until they completed training in human rights and “effective management practices”;
  • Compensation for “all affected teachers”;
  • Undoing of grade placements for the 2023-2024 school year for affected teachers.

According to Knopf, “Soon after the filing of this grievance, the two teachers who objected to their placements at the School by the Principal were reassigned to situations they accepted for the 2023-2024 school year.”

Knopf’s decision explained that the principal’s email came on the heels of a teacher’s complaint about the principal’s assignment and that, without that email, the ETFO could not have known about the alleged “inappropriate motivations behind the Principal’s decisions and their impact on previous assignments.”  

Knopf noted “Abuse can occur on an isolated basis or be part of a pattern. The wording and the essence of the grievance raised the spectre of both possibilities. Therefore, if the grievance covers past events that are either relevant to the 2023-2024 school year or could concern previous years and only came to light in the May 5, 2023 email, it explains the timing of the filing and it would be unfitting to bar those abuses from being considered.”

“Accordingly,” she concluded that the objections to the grievance were dismissed and the hearing would resume as previously scheduled.

“However,” Knopf cautioned, “having decided the grievance can proceed, this hearing will not be allowed to become a fishing expedition by [ETFO]. Further, the range of remedies may be significantly affected by the timing of the grievance.”

“These are sophisticated Parties, represented by some of the best counsel in the labour relations bar,” she pointed out. “I expect them to exchange all relevant documentation and material necessary to ensure a fair and efficient hearing. I also encourage them to communicate concerning the names and order of witnesses to be called.”

The hearing was conducted via video conference on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023, and Knopf’s decision not to dismiss the grievance was given on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. No information on the rest of the arbitration dates was provided but the grievance will now continue to be heard by the independent arbitrator.

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