Former Alberta school superintendent created culture of fear and intimidation, report says

Former Sturgeon Public School Board superintendent Mary Lynne Campbell is taking legal action after a report from the public interest commissioner noted that she harassed and bullied employees.  (Public School Boards' Association of Alberta/Twitter - image credit)
Former Sturgeon Public School Board superintendent Mary Lynne Campbell is taking legal action after a report from the public interest commissioner noted that she harassed and bullied employees. (Public School Boards' Association of Alberta/Twitter - image credit)

An investigation into a whistleblower's complaint has found that a former superintendent of the Sturgeon School Division "grossly mismanaged" employees creating a culture of bullying, harassment, and intimidation.

Mary Lynne Campbell's conduct was found to have contravened the province's whistleblower protection act, Alberta's public interest commissioner concluded on the balance of probabilities, in a report published in late December.

Campbell's acts "were deliberate and showed a reckless or wilful disregard for proper management," the report states.

"While Ms. Campbell believes her conduct and management style were appropriate, the overwhelming weight of evidence provided by over 85 per cent of the division's central office employees supports my findings," former public interest commissioner Peter Sherstan wrote in the report.

"Ms. Campbell's inappropriate conduct created a culture of fear within the division demonstrating a reckless or wilful disregard for the proper management of the division."

Campbell began teaching in 1983, and was the top administrator of Sturgeon Public Schools since 2018.

In October 2021, Campbell announced her plans to retire in June 2022, but just a month following the announcement her role had already been taken over by Shawna Walter, the current superintendent.

The report said that the commissioner received the complaint about Campbell's misconduct on May 17, 2021.

The report noted that Campbell retired while the investigation was ongoing, but because of the severity of the allegations, the investigation would continue until its completion.

The public interest commissioner's report detailed the accounts of 39 current and former employees who are referred to as witnesses to maintain their anonymity.

Of the witnesses, six of them were interviewed in the investigation as per Campbell's request in support of her position.

Thirty-five witnesse, including four of Campbell's own selected witnesses, described the culture and Campbell's leadership as "toxic, degrading, and scary."

The commissioner noted that 12 people described negative mental health impacts from work-related stress they said Campbell played a role in and five of those people had to receive treatment for panic, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Former superintendent says she was well-liked

In response to the allegations, Campbell provided the commissioner with a 189-page written response along with 1,616 pages of documents and 25 minutes of video supporting her defence.

Campbell said she believed she was well-liked by staff.

"She advised that she once received so many gifts from employees that it took her the better part of six weeks to open them," the report said.

Campbell said that she did not yell at employees and that certain employees would shout at her, which prompted her to give them time to calm down and make sure they were OK.

"I found all the witnesses, including Ms. Campbell, to be credible insofar as they believed the evidence they were providing was true," Sherstan wrote in the report.

One witness, who Campbell referred the commissioner to interview, said they became so anxious from working with Campbell that they vomited.

Sherstan wrote that although he did not dispute that Campbell believes she was well-liked by employees and did not harass or intimidate them, the evidence from witnesses does not support Campbell's perception of the interactions.

Witnesses also told the commissioner they were prevented from commuting with each other and collaborating, which led them to communicate on their personal phones and outside of the workplace.

Employees said they would often unplug work phones or use a hot-spot from their personal devices to keep from Campbell any communications despite them being work-related.

Campbell disputed the claims about the culture, saying her "management style was appropriate," and that "witnesses were erroneously attributing negative intentions."

In an emailed statement to CBC from Campbell's lawyer, Matthew Woodley, he said his client has filed an application for judicial review in the Court of King's Bench to address concerns with the commissioner's report.

"From the beginning of the process, we have raised significant concerns with the commissioner's office about the integrity of the investigation, the lack of fair processes, the lack of particulars to allow Ms. Campbell to respond, and an incomplete and imbalanced adjudication," Woodley said.

Campbell would not comment on the report due to it being before the court.

"Ms. Campbell's conduct at all times was beyond reproach, and we intend to vindicate her hard-earned reputation through the courts," Woodley added.

At the conclusion of an investigation, the public interest commissioner can make recommendations for corrective measures to address the matter but, Sherstan decided not to make any because Campbell was no longer employed by the division.

Campbell continues to hold her teacher, leadership, and superintendent leadership certifications.

A spokesperson for the province said the Ministry of Education does not have the authority to confirm whether a complaint again Campbell has been filed nor if or when an investigation has started.