Education boss quits, Key backs minister

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 falling out sparked the resignation of her chief executive, Lesley Longstone.

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

Taxpayers will stump up for the cost of terminating Longstone's contract four years early, but Rennie yesterday refused to reveal the size of any payout. Her salary is thought to be around $500,000, so any payout is likely to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There are now calls for Parata to fall on her sword as well, after the relationship broke down over a series of blunders in the education portfolio. Labour said Parata held ministerial responsibility for the bungles, while there are questions over her handling of the relationship with her chief executive.

Rennie said Longstone's decision to quit came after a meeting with him, where they agreed it had to happen.

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

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

The Public Service Association blamed ministerial pressure and interference, and said Longstone had been put under enormous pressure while Parata "ducked for cover" over blunders including Christchurch school closures. But Key yesterday insisted he retained "complete confidence" in Parata as Education Minister, although a looming Cabinet reshuffle early next year could open the door to moving her.

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

Both Parata and Key refused to front for questions, but issued statements through their offices.

Parata acknowledged 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.

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

Longstone is taking a break in England, from where she was appointed, but will return to her job before finishing on February 8.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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