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Principal's dismissal reveals conflicts

THE DOMINION POST - TUESDAY, 4 DECEMBER 2012


It seems the dismissal of a school principal sets the scene for a dispute on a grand scale.

The recent dismissal and subsequent interim reinstatement of Christchurch Girls' High School principal Prue Taylor has received considerable media attention of late.

However, the South Island is no stranger to high profile employment disputes involving school principals.

Readers may remember the legendary case brought against the Timaru Girls' High School Board of Trustees by the Principal, Annabel Hobday, following her dismissal from the school in the 1990s.

Hobday’s dismissal came about because the Board said it had lost trust and confidence in her after they had a sharp conflict over a number of administrative issues at the school.

Hobday was successful in obtaining an interim injunction granting temporary reinstatement. She subsequently brought proceedings for various personal grievances and sought permanent reinstatement.

The Employment Court, after one of the longest cases in its history, found for Hobday. The Board of Trustees had breached its good employer obligations before dismissal and wrongly breached the Principal’s right to administer and manage the school and its resources. The Board also unnecessarily interfered in management issues.

The dismissal was therefore unjustified. Hobday was not only reinstated permanently but was awarded $37,500 including compensation for the humiliation and distress caused by the dismissal. She also received a significant award for legal costs.

Prue Taylor’s ongoing difficulties with her school board therefore seems to be a case of history repeating itself.

Taylor had been the Principal of Christchurch Girls' High School for 13 years. In April 2012 Board chairman James Margaritis wrote to Taylor citing a number of issues that had arisen over the preceding 12 months. These resulted in informal talks about the Board’s concerns with the school’s operational management. According to the Board, there had been problems brewing between it and Taylor since 2009.

Efforts were made to resolve the Board’s concerns, including an attempt at mediation. However, it seems that things took a turn for the worse following the publication of an Education Review Office report. The report raised concerns about the professional relationship between Taylor and her employees. A number of staff members had also raised concerns with the Board about Taylor’s leadership.

In October the Board advised =Taylor that it had unanimously lost trust and confidence in her as leader of the school. It called a disciplinary meeting with her a few days later but Taylor advised the Board that she was unable to attend. Despite that the Board decided to dismiss her.

Taylor brought a claim in the Employment Relations Authority and sought interim reinstatement. To get interim reinstatement an employee has to show that he or she has an arguable case, that the “balance of convenience” favours reinstatement and that the “overall justice of the case” also favours reinstatement.

Taylor succeeded on all three points. She had an arguable case that her dismissal was unjustified. The Board had arguably failed to provide satisfactory information to Taylor before the disciplinary meeting, it arguably failed to accommodate her request to be present with the chosen representative and had potentially predetermined the outcome of the disciplinary process. It didn’t inform her that dismissal was a possibility.

The interim reinstatement did come with several conditions and Taylor is not expected to return to work until 12 December. Should the issues between the Board and Taylor persist, a full hearing is scheduled for 4 February next year.

Such problems are rarely resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Since Taylor’s dismissal, we have seen considerable media attention focused on the dissatisfaction of parents with the Board. Staff have been divided and now the Board Chairman has resigned his position with his deputy taking over. It seems that the Ministry of Education also has significant concerns about the situation and has sent at least one letter to the Board expressing its concerns.

Should this case continue to a full hearing, readers will watch it with interest. How will our judicial system handle the difficult human relations and conflicts that are manifesting themselves at Christchurch Girls' High School?

There are many chapters still to unfold in this human and legal saga. There is often difficulty in both doing justice and resolving the underlying and fragile human relationships. These include relationships between the Board, the principal, teachers and parents, all of which impact on the wellbeing of the students.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm is one of only eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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