Anatomy of a dismissal

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 12:47 15/12/2012
Christchurch Girls' High School principal Prue Taylor

Christchurch Girls' High School principal Prue Taylor

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Here is a conundrum that may be at the heart of Prue Taylor's problem. One of her weaknesses is not tolerating those who fail to meet her expectations. But other people who work for her see exactly the same quality as a strength.

"I've said all along that no principal's perfect and you can't win," Taylor says. "One minute, you're accused of not making decisions and not being decisive and strong. Then you make a strong decision and you're criticised because you didn't consult enough.

"It's just part of the wonderful nature of this job. You're supposed to be able to behave perfectly and please everybody all of the time. You just have to get over that right at the beginning and understand you have to do what's best for the school."

The school is Christchurch Girls' High and Taylor has been back as principal since Thursday. On Wednesday, mediation with the board of trustees produced a very good result: Taylor's interim reinstatement turned permanent. That means she won't have to sit through further consideration of her strengths and weaknesses in February.

On Thursday, some parents formed a welcome back committee and met her with flowers and chocolates. Otherwise, the school is almost completely deserted. It was determined that the principal shouldn't return until the girls had gone for the year. She even missed prizegiving.

Still, Wednesday was a win and her relief is obvious. Taylor's manner is bright, friendly and perhaps slightly fragile. You expect fragility after the year she just had.

The stark details are that Taylor was sacked after a school board of trustees meeting on November 2. It was a Friday and her employment was terminated as of 3pm.

Three weeks later, the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) found that the board's processes were wrong and Taylor won an interim reinstatement, with a full hearing set for February. That hearing won't happen now.

During the stand-off between Taylor and the board, upset parents called for greater input into board decision-making. Taylor says that request has also been granted after mediation, with two new board positions created for parents.

Case closed, then. But what happened here?

During the five weeks that Taylor was gone, rumour and speculation filled the gap. The report by ERA member David Appleton is a more detailed and reliable account.

The story starts in November 2011 with Taylor's annual performance appraisal. An external appraiser looked for strengths and weaknesses. Strengths included her leadership of the school after the earthquake, her resilience and courage, her efforts to ensure that affected staff were OK and her public speaking abilities. She was seen as a role model of personal excellence and a strong advocate for women and girls' education.

So far, so good. But there were also areas for development. This is where the appraiser heard that Taylor lacked tolerance of those who did not come up to her expectations, and where others felt that was a strength. There was a view that she could be harsh and unfair in her criticism, that she micro-managed and that decision- making lacked transparency, clarity and consistency.

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At that stage, Taylor was 12 years into the job. Before that, she spent 10 years as deputy principal of Rangi Ruru Girls' School and had taught at Rangi Ruru, Avonside Girls' High School, Linwood College and Christchurch Boys' High School, as well as in Canada.

The conclusion was that Taylor met all the professional standards of a principal to a satisfactory level or above, and that a majority were strongly supportive of her, but more than 20 per cent of those consulted had frustrations and concerns.

She believes now that "the negative comments were quite heavily weighted by particular people".

In April, the board engaged Peter Macdonald as its legal adviser. Macdonald has acted for the boards of two other South Island secondary schools in unsuccessful attempts to unseat principals.

"I knew I was in trouble when Macdonald's name was mentioned," Taylor says. "He's got that reputation."

Letters went back and forth between Taylor and the board. There was an attempt at mediation, but no protocols or processes followed.

It seemed typical of the broken relationship between Taylor and board chairman James Margaritis that he even wrote complaining that she paid a legal bill out of a school account. She replied that she assumed it was school business. As it was a grey area, she then reimbursed the sum.

The board hired a human relations adviser to investigate. He concluded that Taylor made an honest mistake with no intention to deceive. The first time the wider public heard about any of this was when the Education Review Office (ERO) released its report on the school in August. It found that "professional relationships between the board, principal and senior managers" had "the potential to hinder the school's progress towards achieving its vision and direction". It painted a picture of a dysfunctional relationship between the board and the principal, with senior staff stuck in the middle. That seemed like a fair description to Taylor.

Taylor told the ERO that the board did not understand governance. She said there was a blame culture and an atmosphere of no trust.

Taylor got further detail under the Official Information Act. She says this was not done to identify people who made comments but to get a sense of what was said. According to Appleton's report, there were "47 specific comments . . . made by one or more people". These people included the school's deputy principal and two assistant principals, the hostel manager, the careers co-ordinator, heads of learning areas, the teacher in charge of careers and the teacher in charge of learning support.

About 18 of the 47 comments were direct criticisms of Taylor. Others may have been veiled criticisms but context made it hard to tell, Appleton found. The vast majority of comments were "generalised" and referred to relationship problems without attributing blame.

"There are people in the school who openly disagree with me at times," Taylor says. "That's fine. I'd much rather they did and had a chat about it." In other words, disagreement is one thing but avoid the secrecy.

"This has reinforced what I've always believed, which is the importance of communication and the importance of talking with people about things," she says.

"The importance of dealing with issues or queries or concerns at the time that they arise. This all could have been avoided.

"This has been my theme song for months and months.

"When I tried to talk to the chairman of the board, I just got fobbed off. It's important that communication happens at all levels of an organisation."

One of the more alarming parts of the story concerns Girls' High hostel manager Dionne Guillemot- Rodgerson. On October 18, she wrote to the board that she no longer had trust and confidence in Taylor. She felt that Taylor had "interrogated" her about her conversations with the board and ERO, which made her feel "unsafe professionally and personally" and even affected her health.

A week earlier, the school's deputy principal and two assistant principals wrote to the board with concerns about Taylor's leadership and relationships with senior management.

In both cases, the Employment Relations Authority was unsure what prompted these statements.

Taylor says she had no idea how Guillemot-Rodgerson felt.

"That's something I will have to talk to her about," she says. "We'd been good mates. She's done a wonderful, wonderful job at the hostel. She's full of energy and enthusiasm. I wish she had talked to me a bit more."

The deputy principal and two assistants had asked that Taylor not be reinstated.

"They indicated that they would find it very stressful working with me," she says. "I haven't spoken with them yet. Part of Wednesday was working out where to from here. That's an issue we'll work on, probably after Christmas.

"There will still be some work to do with people who have made comments." The ERA found it hard to figure out exactly what Taylor was supposed to have done wrong. Where were the specifics?

"Simply asserting a loss of trust and confidence is insufficient," David Appleton wrote. He added that he was "unable to identify a single specific incident that is alleged to have taken place in respect of which any of the three senior managers could reasonably (or at all) assert that Taylor has behaved unprofessionally towards them".

He wrote that Taylor "has never had the opportunity to listen to Guillemot-Rodgerson's concerns in person and to engage with her about them".

He noted that after Taylor was sacked, a teacher wrote to the board on behalf of 64 staff members to express shock and dismay.

But the board seems to have been determined to fire Taylor and to do it quickly. The crucial meeting was set for November 2. Taylor's Auckland-based lawyer, Richard Harrison, was due in court that day and he and Taylor asked to reschedule. The board went ahead without them.

This failure to accommodate Taylor's request to have a representative of her choice at the meeting was one of the ERA's six black marks against the board.

"I was criticised for not being at the meeting when I was at school doing normal things," Taylor says. "These are the kinds of things the board was badly advised about."

Two days after the ERA reached its decision in support of Taylor, Margaritis stood down as chairman of the school board.

So, what happened? You have to go back into history. In 1989, the Tomorrow's Schools model was introduced, making schools self- managing. School boards employ principals.

Education researcher Cathy Wylie has recently published on this issue of whether school boards have too much power. Her research showed that 12 to 15 per cent of principals have reported problems, including personality clashes, with their boards at any one time.

"In my time here I've supported other principals who have trouble with one or more board member," Taylor says. "Or people with their own agendas or ambitions.

"A board can cause so much damage, not only to the person but the whole community. A board shouldn't be able to go as far as this one did and just dismiss somebody without things being proven. It was almost at the whim of the board. There should have to be an application made to Wellington. In this case, we had a board that set itself off on a course and was badly advised. There were bad processes."

How did Taylor cope personally? On top of the drama at school, there was surely ongoing grief. Taylor's husband, Brian, was one of those who died in the collapse of the CTV building last February. He was managing director of King's Education.

"One of the most difficult times was just after the board had begun its investigations, ERO was in the school and my grandson, who was 21 months, died unexpectedly one Saturday night," she remembers. "And the Royal Commission into the CTV building had begun.

"That was a bleak period. But it helped enormously having the job and being with people. If I had been sitting at home by myself it would have been much harder to deal with those things. I had a lot of support here at the time."

Being back where she feels she belongs - that is one important thing. Another is that she gets to make her own choices about how and when she retires.

"I'm not pushed out the door. I decide when I go. That should be every principal's right."

- The Press

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