Concern at procedure in dismissals

16:00, Dec 07 2012

The employment expert who had a hand in Prue Taylor's sacking has been criticised for his role in firing two other South Island principals who successfully fought their dismissals.

Auckland lawyer Richard Harrison, who acts for Taylor, principal of Christchurch Girls' High School (CGHS), believes the Taylor case and two other sacked principals he represented showed "concerning" similarities.

Harrison has represented three principals sacked by employment advocate Peter Macdonald, or the boards he was advising, in their fight against dismissal - Aranui High School principal Graeme Pollock in 2005, Wakatipu High School principal Lyn Cooper last year and Taylor last month. All three lodged grievances that resulted in a major backdown by the schools and in each Christchurch-based employment advocate Peter Macdonald played a key role for the schools.

Taylor was sacked and then reinstated last month after a damning Employment Relations Authority (ERA) report found her dismissal was "procedurally, and possibly substantively unjustified".

Pollock received a settlement payout and took up a principal's position overseas. Cooper was bizarrely reinstated before her case even reached an ERA hearing. She was given a public apology from the board for the "unfortunate" dismissal, resigned four weeks later and is now deputy principal at Invercargill's Verdon College.

Macdonald was the CGHS board's legal adviser during the Taylor saga but he was a government-appointed limited statutory manager (LSM) through Pollock and Cooper's dismissals.


Macdonald has worked as an LSM for the Education Ministry at nine schools across the South Island since 2002.

In seven of the schools, the principal was either sacked or chose to resign during his period of involvement.

Harrison believed "no evidence of misconduct" or behaviour that would justify dismissal existed in the Taylor, Pollock or Cooper cases.

The major process failures in Taylor's dismissal, highlighted by the ERA report, also featured in both Cooper and Pollock's cases, he said.

The process errors included:

Refusal to provide specific information prior to the disciplinary meeting

Possible pre-determination

No evidence the principal was told they could face dismissal

The mixing up of capability and misconduct issues

Failing to follow the provisions of the disciplinary section of the employment agreement.

"My concern is in all three cases there has been a misuse of process; an approach I don't think should be followed by someone who is government-appointed," Harrison said.

In his view, the approach that had been taken in the cases "is a way to basically not follow process and just humiliate the principal to the point where it just drives them out".

In each case, the principals had been invited to a meeting with the board and were told their employer "no longer has trust or confidence in you and if you don't go voluntarily, you will get dismissed". Harrison believed the issue needed to be reviewed by the Government by way of an inquiry into the appointment of LSMs.

Macdonald denied he had acted improperly and said the only similarities between the cases was that by the time he was appointed, the schools had been found to be "seriously at risk" and had "damning" ERO reports.

"My role was not to go in and find whether the school was fragile or not. That had already been decided. My role is to go in and find out what had been causing it."

Macdonald rejected the accusation he had made any mistakes in his approach to all three cases, but said he did not want to wade into a slinging match with Harrison. "I believe the processes in every instance . . . have been fair and reasonable. I stand by my decisions in every instance."

Both Pollock and Cooper's cases had been resolved through a "negotiated settlement" and neither party had admitted liability, he said.

The accusations he had humiliated principals with his approach was "offensive".

"If that was an approach I had used I would be very, very ashamed of myself.

"I would loathe not to be seen as a fair person but I make no apologies for being firm in terms of process because this is about kids, this is about schools."

The role of a statutory manager was "always difficult" and it was not surprising people disagreed with the decision, he said.

"I fully respect that in situations involving such employment disputes there will always quite understandably be those who disagree with whatever actions a statutory manager takes.

"The process and employment law is always subject to debate. There is always an opportunity for someone to say you could have or should have done more."

Macdonald told The Press he was aware of being called the ministry's "hatchet man", but said he was only doing his job.

Cooper told The Press when Taylor's dismissal hit the headlines last month, it had felt like deja vu.

The terminology Macdonald had used to fire Taylor was "identical" to that of her own situation and a year on she still did not know why she had been sacked.

Taylor said when she realised Macdonald had been hired by the board "I knew I was in trouble".

"I knew of his reputation; he is the person boards hire when they want to get rid of the principal," she said.

"He continues to have the ear of the ministry at levels that I find very concerning given what he has done in so many schools," she said.

Taylor's full hearing will be held in early February and the board will be represented by other counsel. Macdonald said he had never received a complaint from the ministry or any board he had worked with but he had received "a lot of compliments".

He works as the LSM at Wakatipu High School, Hammersley Park School and the ministry appointed him as LSM at Salford School in Invercargill last month.


The Education Ministry intervenes in schools "where learning is at risk through governance issues", a ministry spokesman said. There are five levels of intervention, ranging from a requirement to provide information to the replacement of a board with a commissioner. A limited statutory manager takes over the powers of the board, he said. Peter Macdonald has worked as an Education Ministry-appointed limited statutory manager at the following schools: Waikari School from 2002 - 2003 Catholic Cathedral College from 2004 - 2005 Aranui High School from 2004 - 2008 Aidanfield Christian School from 2006 - 2008 Swannanoa School from 2008 - 2009 Glenmoor School from 2010 - 2011 Wakatipu High School from 2011 - present Hammersley Park School 2011 - until school closure in 2013 Salford School - November 2012 - present

The Press