Catholic trustees' vote could have affected their children’s school jobs, conflict case hears

By Kristin Rushowy, Education Reporter
Published by ParentCentral.ca on May 13, 2010

A report outlining staff cutbacks; a budget that contained employee salaries; an amendment for the board to run a deficit; a presentation by a union official urging trustees not to lay off teachers.

The participation of Toronto Catholic trustees Angela Kennedy and Barbara Poplawski in discussions or votes on those issues at a May 2008 violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act because their children — board employees who would have been affected — had a clear financial interest, lawyer Stephen D’Agostino told court on Thursday.

Both women declared a "possible conflict" at the beginning of the meeting, but then only removed themselves from a specific motion that would have prevented any staff from being laid off, court was told.

D’Agostino represents Catholic parent Arnaldo Amaral, who has brought the conflict-of-interest case forward against the two longtime trustees.

The women’s lawyer, Colin Stevenson, has said there was no conflict — but that if there was any possible pecuniary interest it was "too remote, or insignificant" to matter.

Stevenson also said Poplawski does not recall standing on the sidelines after declaring a conflict on the motion and making a "thumbs down" gesture in order to influence other trustees’ vote on layoffs, as alleged in court documents.

At the time of the May meeting, Kennedy’s son, Kevin, worked as an unqualified supply education assistant a few days a week at high schools. Another son, Brian, had applied, interviewed and been accepted for the supply teacher pool, although he hadn’t registered to begin work. Brian, who worked for the board for several summers in the past, did eventually start as a supply teacher later that year.

Poplawski’s daughter, Terry O’Handley, was a full-time education assistant at the time and near the top of the union’s seniority list, court has heard.

The two have been estranged for years, but Poplawski knew her daughter worked for the board, court was told. O’Handley has since been terminated because of absences, court has heard.

Amaral, a parent of children in Toronto Catholic schools, is asking the court to remove Kennedy and Poplawski from their trustee positions as well as disqualify them from running for up to seven years.

Court documents say Catholic trustees received legal opinions saying "involvement in discussions" pertaining to the budget "may raise the appearance of a conflict of interest" if they have children working as teachers or support staff.

Last year, former board chair and trustee Oliver Carroll was kicked off the board after being found guilty of 10 contraventions of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, including his participation in budget discussions at that same May meeting. At the time, his daughter was a newly hired teacher and faced the likelihood of being laid off, and his son was in the supply teacher pool.

D’Agostino cited several similarities between the cases for the court, although the women’s lawyer countered that the cases have little in common.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Stevenson again told court that Amaral is merely a straw man for trustee Catherine LeBlanc-Miller, who has a "political vendetta" against the two others.

Stevenson said she has "encouraged litigation that otherwise the parties would not have engaged in," and said if the judge finds the case to have been brought forward in bad faith that it must be dismissed.

LeBlanc-Miller did provide an affidavit in the case, as did several other trustees.

Stevenson told court LeBlanc-Miller promised to cover Amaral’s court costs, although Madam Justice Lois Roberts noted testimony that said LeBlanc-Miller would simply "help."

The case is being heard in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice.