Winnipeg School Division removes school trustee, declares seat vacant

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Manitoba’s largest school board has removed a trustee, who has a history of sporadic attendance and who has been disciplined by the board in the past.

Following a private board meeting on Monday, the Winnipeg School Division announced via news release that its trustees had passed a motion to declare the Ward 5 seat vacant, effective immediately.

“The motion arises out of Director Cindy Murdoch’s failure to attend regularly scheduled board meetings,” the statement said.

The brief statement cited the Public Schools Act, which outlines situations — death of a trustee, resignation, disqualification, moving to reside outside the division, or failure to attend three consecutive regular meetings without permission — in which a board may advertise an opening.

Murdoch could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

On Feb. 7, Murdoch was kicked out of a virtual board meeting about 15 minutes into it “due to inappropriate conduct.” Board meeting minutes show that the last public meeting she attended before this appearance was four meetings earlier, on November 1.

The former administrator has faced multiple allegations of attending meetings while intoxicated since being elected to serve WSD Families in 2018.

Murdoch has never publicly addressed such allegations, but she has spoken openly about her struggle with mental health.

Several sources told the Free press she repeatedly denied being under the influence of any substance at work, but concerns about intoxication at a fall 2019 meeting led to her temporary suspension the following spring.

Following a brief disappearance reported by police in April 2020 and a suspension from the board announced the following month, Murdoch issued a lengthy statement condemning the action and announcing his participation in residential treatment to overcome his personal challenges.

In her letter, she writes that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a reduction in the mental health support services she had been accessing since the previous fall.

“I believe that the great personal efforts that I am making to overcome these many challenges should be inspirational, not condemnatory…Too often people with disabilities and mental health issues are ignored as not being” at the height,'” Murdoch told The Times.

She filed a human rights complaint against the WSD in relation to the incident. It has not yet been resolved.

The board’s closed-door discussions about Murdoch’s behavior and well-being have taken a long time since 2019, according to division sources who spoke to the Free press last month over their frustrations, little action has been taken to address the issue.

Laurie French, president of the Canadian School Boards Association, pointed out that there is a clear difference between breaches of the code of conduct and cases where boards are legally required to declare a seat vacant.

Each council has its own code of conduct in Manitoba, and they generally rely on a “directors manage directors” model so that elected officials hold each other accountable to the highest governance standards and behaviors, French said.

Three of WSD’s nine board seats are now vacant. Two former members left their positions in 2019, after being elected to provincial politics, and their positions have not been filled due to pandemic-related disruptions.

Prior to the declaration of the pandemic, the provincial government had also ordered councils not to hold by-elections ahead of the introduction of a controversial education reform bill that has since been dropped.

The latest vacancy marks the second time in a month that a trustee in Manitoba’s capital has been ousted due to attendance issues. The Pembina Trails School Division announced the sudden opening of the board on January 31.

The vacant seats in central and south Winnipeg will be filled in the next municipal election, scheduled for October 26.

Councils continue to hold meetings with a combination of in-person and virtual attendance, due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Trustees have been challenged to respond and ensure the right supports are in place and they have worked very hard to do so under very strained conditions over the past two years,” French said Tuesday, during a phone call from Kingston, Ontario. .

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Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Journalist

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press educational journalist comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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