Helensville School stoush escalates

A stoush at Helensville School continues to escalate, with the parents at the centre of the stand-off taking their complaints to the Teaching Council and the courts.

Last year, Newsroom reported on an ongoing feud between the Cunliffe family and Helensville School’s principal and board.

The dispute started with an altercation after school in February, and has since snowballed to include investigations by the Office of the Ombudsman, Office of the Privacy Commissioner and the Teaching Council.

An attempt at mediation fell over, and school staff are divided over the dispute.

The Ministry of Education and the NZ School Trustees Association (NZSTA) have also been involved, and David Munro – an experienced board of trustees member, and someone with industrial relations experience – has been co-opted to the board to try and clean up the mess.

But it seems the raft of issues plaguing the school community and the family have escalated since Munro arrived.

Teaching Council complaint, OIA argument

Rachel and Regan Cunliffe have now taken their complaints about principal Deborah Heasman to the Teaching Council (formerly the Education Council), which is investigating the case but would not comment, citing the Privacy Act and natural justice outcomes.

Meanwhile, Munro – the man brought in to try and sort out the kerfuffle – has tried repeatedly to set up a face-to-face meeting with the Cunliffes.

An email stream shows Munro has repeatedly requested a meeting before progressing further with his own investigations and dealing with numerous Official Information Act Requests from the Cunliffes - some of which he says will take extensive resource and collation, with the information in some cases non-existent.

He said it would be easier to try and resolve the issues after a meeting where the parties could come to better understand the problems and answer the OIA requests.

But the Cunliffes have refused a face-to-face meeting, saying Munro had been dishonest in his correspondence, and is now withholding information he is legally obliged to share under the OIA.

As a result of these exchanges, Rachel Cunliffe filed an application to launch a legal case against Munro under the new Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA).

HDCA complaint dismissed

The decision from Judge Lance Rowe said the Cunliffes asked for the requests for meetings to stop, saying the repeated requests “amount to unwanted pressure to meet and are tantamount to blackmail that their OIA requests will not be attended to unless there is a meeting”.

“Mrs Cunliffe says she feels harassed by Mr Munro’s ongoing requests to meet, does not like what she regards as the threatening tone of his emails, and says that the repeated requests to meet have caused her to have nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety and distress.”

The Cunliffes also complained to Netsafe, which decided not to take the issue further under the HDCA.

Rowe said in his judgment the preliminary threshold was met for the Cunliffes to bring the court proceedings. However, he decided to dismiss the case and take no further action, saying it was untenable the Cunliffes could win the case, as a court could not be satisfied there had been threat of a serious breach.

The judgment also covered other issues at the heart of the ongoing dispute, including the Cunliffes’ distrust in Munro, and the nature of Munro’s requests for a meeting.

Rowe said there was insufficient evidence to suggest Munro was “dishonest” – as he had been described – and his requests for a meeting were part of an attempt to resolve the dispute; they were not threatening or inappropriate.

Rowe said there was insufficient evidence to suggest Munro was “dishonest” – as he had been described – and his requests for a meeting were part of an attempt to resolve the dispute; they were not threatening or inappropriate.

Rachel Cunliffe said in a statement: “I am disappointed that in this day and age, saying no or asking someone to stop is not enough.”

Despite these numerous email exchanges, and the court judgment, Munro – the designated point of contact for the school – said the situation had not progressed since he spoke to Newsroom in December. He did not respond to requests for further comment.

With just over two weeks until the school year kicks off, the dispute is nearing its first anniversary.

The Cunliffes have said the ongoing and stressful nature of the dispute has caused health issues for them, and their children.

And no doubt the school is keen for the issue, which has taken up time and resources, to come to an end.

Are boards equipped to deal with disputes?

In December, the Government released the recommendations from the Tomorrow’s Schools review, which called for drastic changes to the school governance structure.

This included removing the responsibility of dealing with disputes and property issues from the principal and board.

The review called for establishing local education hubs to help with governance and oversight.

Taskforce chair Bali Haque said the board of trustees self-governing model set up 30 years ago was not working well.

Boards and principals struggled to shoulder too many responsibilities, many of which were not central to teaching and learning, and the success and wellbeing of children.

In most cases, principals and boards of trustees are ill-equipped to deal with disputes within the school community.

The taskforce recommended establishing 125 education hubs as Crown entities throughout the country, which would be responsible for many of the current governance responsibilities of boards of trustees.

This would include providing leadership advice for principals, curriculum and assessment support for teachers, property matters, school suspensions, and the complaints process. The hubs would also work with the board to appoint school principals on five-year terms.

In most cases, principals and boards of trustees are ill-equipped to deal with disputes within the school community. While they have support from the NZ School Trustees Association (NZSTA) and the Ministry of Education, they aren’t trained and are not usually experts in dispute resolution.

It is already difficult to get parents and members of the community to sit on the board.

At the last triennial school trustee elections in 2016, 30 percent of schools either received the right number of, or fewer nominations than, board positions, meaning the school community did not vote on who would be in its board. The next elections are due to be held this year.

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