Francophone school board executive director hasn't lived in N.L. since March

·5 min read
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

The executive director of Newfoundland and Labrador's francophone school board hasn't set foot in the province since March.

During that period, Kim Christianson has overseen operations at the Conseil scolaire francophone provincial from Ontario, despite written and verbal requests from the Department of Education to return to work at the board's head office in St. John's.

Christianson, the school board's executive director since December 2016, declined a request from CBC News for comment.

Board chair Brian Lee said Thursday he sees no reason to call Christianson back to the province.

"She hasn't been absent; she's present every day, she's very easy to reach, she works with staff at the office every day," said Lee, in an interview in French with Radio-Canada.

Lee said Christianson relocated to Ontario at the beginning of the pandemic to be closer to family.

"When the beginning of the [2020-21] school year arrived, we looked at the situation … We realized that Ms. Christianson could, in the current climate, fulfil all her responsibilities from basically anywhere," Lee said. "And she's been very effective during that period of time.

"No meetings are happening in person. Everything happens over Skype."

Education minister says his hands are tied

Education Minister Tom Osborne said he "cannot condone" Christianson — a senior civil servant who made just under $150,000 in 2019 — remaining in Ontario. But he said his hands are tied because the school district is an independent board.

"The reality is, she is serving this province and the students of this province and she should be in the province," Osborne said Wednesday.

"She is not an employee of the department; the contract she has is with the school district. It is our expectation that if she is serving at the francophone school district of Newfoundland and Labrador that she reside in Newfoundland and Labrador. But, you know, that is for the francophone school district to deal with," said Osborne, who said he learned of the situation in September.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

"We have seen other situations with agencies, boards and commissions that have autonomy, that we can make our requests, we can make our position known, but it is the francophone school district that would have to take action."

'It doesn't work'

Christianson is one of only a handful of employees at the francophone school board still working from home. Lee acknowledged almost every other employee had returned to work at board headquarters by the time the district's 400 students returned to in-class instruction in September.

Human resources management expert Denis Morin said executives like Christianson must be regularly present at their place of work in order to manage their organization successfully.

"It doesn't work. She occupies a highly strategic position, being an executive. She must, in a given period, be present at headquarters," said Morin, a full professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal,

"How can you get a full idea of operations if you're never present? Working remotely is great, but it has its limits," he said. "You have to remember that in a manager's position, 80 per cent of the work is managing people on the ground."

'There's a problem here': PC education critic

PC education critic Tony Wakeham says no one is calling into question Christianson's abilities or skills, but she should be in the province.

"I think there's a problem here," he said Monday.

Radio-Canada
Radio-Canada

Wakeham said citing the pandemic for the move isn't sufficient.

"To blame this on COVID is just not good enough," Wakeham said.

"There are all kinds of essential workers being brought into our province all the time, and surely the executive director of a school board would be considered essential, and I would think it's essential for that person to be on the ground of Newfoundland and Labrador."

Jim Dinn, the education critic for the NDP and a former teacher, said it's a "bit surprising" that Christianson has been out of the province for that long.

"You need to lead by example … I think if you're going to be in that key position you need to be here running the show," he said on Monday.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

He admits that many people would likely want to be closer to family amid a pandemic, but ultimately believes someone in her role should not be working outside the province on a long-term basis.

No return date set

Lee said the board hasn't set a date for Christianson's return to Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It's a temporary situation. This is not permanent," he said. "Currently, we're looking at what's happening with the pandemic and risks related to travel."

Osborne said Christianson, to his knowledge, is the only senior civil servant not residing in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The francophone school board has lobbied for years to obtain funding for school construction and renovations — including for a new school for the St. John's area and the expansion of École Boréale in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Osborne said issues with Christianson working from Ontario won't sour relations between the board and government.

"We have not received any complaints or concerns about the role being carried out by the head. It's the location she resides that is the only concern," he said.

Lee also said he hasn't received any formal complaints from board staff.

"No complaints have come in from staff at any moment," he said.

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