OPINION: The dismissal of the principal of Christchurch Girls' High School, Prue Taylor, a month ago came as a bombshell to most people.
As has since emerged from a decision made by the Employment Relations Authority on Taylor's interim reinstatement, the dismissal came at the end of a very long process. However, as has also emerged from the authority's decision, that process was badly flawed.
Relations between Taylor, on the one hand, and the school's deputy principal, two assistant principals and others in her senior management team as well as all of the members of the school's board of trustees, on the other, had started to run into trouble at least 18 months ago but all attempts to deal with the problems foundered.
More will no doubt emerge about why matters had gone so catastrophically badly when Taylor's application for permanent reinstatement is heard in February.
At this point, though, the Employment Relations Authority has found that the case the board has made so far is so weak that Taylor has a "strongly arguable" case for claiming that she was unjustifiably dismissed.
This finding is a dismaying one for the board, particularly for one that has been professionally advised on an issue that has been running for some time. But on the evidence cited by the Employment Relations Authority in its decision it is an unavoidable one.
The decision lists six factors that led it to its conclusion. Some of them were failings in matters fundamental to a properly managed employment process. One, for instance, concerned a letter, with six attached documents, telling of the alleged breakdown in the relationship between Taylor and her senior managers.
According to the authority, neither the letter nor the documents contained any substantive details of any incident giving rise to the breakdown. It was therefore impossible for Taylor to address their concerns. That failure alone, according to the authority, gave rise to an arguable case for an unjustified dismissal claim.
The board has complained about having had only limited time to present material as part of its submission to the authority. It is true that the matter was brought on for a hearing quickly but, given how long the dispute has been running, this is an odd claim to make.
In a well-run process, the substantive case justifying her dismissal could have been expected to be well-documented and readily available for the predictable possibility that Taylor would apply to be reinstated. If the board was not ready to present its case, the suspicion naturally arises that it may not have been ready to make a well-founded dismissal.
The principles governing employment relations have become well-established, particularly since the passing of the Employment Relations Act more than 20 years ago. They impose obligations on both employers and employees and are not difficult to follow. The insistence on correct procedure can seem nitpicking at times, but it really does no more than make sure that everyone gets a hearing and is dealt with fairly at every step.
The Girls' High board has been found wanting in the first test of its dealings with Taylor. Relations between Taylor and her colleagues and employers had obviously reached a highly undesirable point.
The board continues to insist it can justify its decision to sack Taylor. That still has to be tested at the hearing on her application in February for permanent reinstatement.
- The Press