Heat on Parata after falling out with CEO

VERNON SMALL AND TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 20/12/2012
HEKIA PARATA
KARL DRURY
Education Minister Hekia Parata

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Prime Minister John Key is standing by Education Minister Hekia Parata after a disastrous falling out sparked the shock resignation of her chief executive Lesley Longstone.

Ms Longstone quit yesterday just 13 months into her five-year contract - and State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie confirmed strained relations between Ms Parata and her chief executive were largely to blame.

Taxpayers will have to stump up for the cost of terminating Ms Longstone's Education Ministry contract four years early, but Mr Rennie refused yesterday to reveal the size of any payout or how much she was being paid.

Her salary as chief executive and Education Secretary is thought to be about $500,000, so any payout is likely to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There are now calls for Ms Parata to fall on her sword as well, after the relationship broke down over a series of blunders in the education portfolio.

Labour said Ms Parata held ministerial responsibility for the bungles, while there are questions over her handling of the relationship with her chief executive.

Mr Rennie revealed it was not the first time relationships had become strained between a minister and chief executive - but he confirmed that "most of that never becomes public".

Ms Longstone's decision to quit had followed a meeting with him, where they agreed it had to happen.

"The last six months have been especially challenging," he said.

"Despite the best efforts of Lesley to work through a number of issues, there now needs to be focus on rebuilding critical relationships that have been strained.

"Lesley and I have decided the best interests of the ministry will be served by her stepping down."

He acknowledged there had also been tensions between Ms Longstone and teacher unions.

But he said he would be happy to hire Ms Longstone for another role in the public service.

The Public Service Association blamed ministerial pressure and interference, and said Ms Longstone had been put under enormous pressure while Ms Parata "ducked for cover" over blunders that included a U-turn on class sizes, the Novopay debacle and Christchurch school closures.

Mr Key insisted yesterday that he retained "complete confidence" in Ms Parata as education minister, though a looming Cabinet reshuffle early next year could open the door to moving her out of the portfolio.

Peter Hughes, the highly regarded former boss of the Ministry of Social Development, has been asked to step in as acting chief executive when Ms Longstone departs early next year.

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Both Ms Parata and Mr Key refused to front for questions, but issued statements.

Ms Parata acknowledged that it had been "a difficult period and there have been a series of tough issues to deal with".

But the affair will raise questions over her personal style, after a high staff turnover in her Beehive office as well.

In recent months, there is understood to have been a parting of the ways with her senior private secretary, while another adviser, Correspondence School chief executive Mike Hollings, left just two months into a two-year secondment. Three private secretaries have also gone.

Employment law expert Susan Hornsby-Geluk said that, without knowing the specifics, "you could guess that around six months' [salary] or more might be a ballpark figure" for any payout to Ms Longstone.

"There would have to be some reason why the State Services Commission, her employer, would pay over and above the minimum notice period."

Mrs Longstone is taking a break with family in England over Christmas but will return to her job briefly before finishing on February 8.

In an email to staff, she said it had been "an extremely difficult decision" but "there has been real disquiet relating to a range of issues" and her position was not sustainable.

MINISTRY BLUNDERS

The Novopay payroll debacle, which has left some school staff without pay for months.

A series of backdowns over school closures, one of which, Salisbury School in Nelson, was ruled unlawful.

Controversy over school restructuring in Christchurch, including a meeting at which school principals were given colour-coded tags to indicate the fate of their school.

A budget error over increasing class sizes, which sparked a Government U-turn.

- The Dominion Post

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