Former Alberta superintendent loses credentials for snooping on diploma exams, falsifying grades

Paul Mason was fired by the board of Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools in February 2020 after more than eight years as superintendent. (Kevin Mulcahy/Shutterstock  - image credit)
Paul Mason was fired by the board of Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools in February 2020 after more than eight years as superintendent. (Kevin Mulcahy/Shutterstock - image credit)

A former superintendent of Catholic schools in Red Deer, Alta., lost his professional credentials last year for falsifying student grades and snooping on diploma exams — the first recorded case of its kind in the province.

"You purposefully inserted yourself into a situation where you had a clear conflict of interest and abused the authority you had as a teacher and teacher leader," Paul Mason was told in a letter from Alberta Education last April.

Mason's behaviour was "highly unprofessional and represented a significant breach of trust," the letter said.

It explained that the government had cancelled Mason's superintendent leadership certificate, leadership certificate and permanent professional certificate, effective immediately.

The information was revealed in December on the province's teacher registry website.

Alberta Education says it is the first case on record of the government permanently revoking a superintendent's teaching credentials as a result of a committee's disciplinary finding.

Mason was fired by the board of Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools in February 2020 after more than eight years in the role.

The board provided no rationale at the time but the firing happened during an investigation by Alberta Education's registrar. Results of the hearing that followed the investigation are now posted to the province'sonline teacher registry.

Mason did not respond to phone or email requests for an interview.

A practice review committee held a hearing in Edmonton from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4, 2022.

The three-member panel found Mason breached security protocols by unsealing, perusing and then photocopying math and English language arts diploma-exam questions he had no professional reason to see.

Mason told the committee he immediately shredded the copies he made but the panel found he had withheld information about the security breach from Alberta Education.

Diploma exams are standardized tests worth 30 per cent of a student's final grade in academic Grade 12 courses. The government has strict rules about how educators must handle and administer the exams. Copying the material is forbidden.

Aprovincial guidebook says superintendents are responsible for ensuring division staff report any irregularities or breaches to the province.

Student grades inflated

The disciplinary committee also found Mason inflated final grades for three high school courses.

The government has redacted some information from the practice review committee's report. It is not clear how many students' grades Mason changed.

Mason testified before the committee that he changed grades in the electronic system for training purposes, so he would know how to do it if that task was required while a teacher was away.

The report said Mason hadn't taught students since 2003.

"It does not make any sense for a superintendent to unilaterally change a mark if a teacher or principal is not involved," the committee wrote in its report.

Mason testified that he was under stress at the time, partly because the school board had an acrimonious conflict with teachers over working conditions.

Mason told the committee he received anonymous, threatening email, was confronted by a drunk, angry teacher while Christmas shopping. He said RCMP told him a death threat had been made against him on Facebook.

He testified that he used to train for triathlons to relieve stress but injuries had interfered.

Conduct 'unprofessional'

The committee recommended in December 2022 that Education Minister Adriana LaGrange cancel Mason's superintendent leadership certificate and leadership certificate.

The panel left the door open for him to teach again by suggesting the minister suspend his teaching certificate for six months until he could complete a course in professional boundaries.

Andre Tremblay, Alberta's deputy minister of education at the time, overruled the committee and permanently revoked Mason's teaching certificate over concerns about his competence.

"It would damage the public confidence in the teacher discipline scheme if a teacher or teacher leader does not receive appropriate sanctions commensurate with the harm inflicted on the profession, students, colleagues, employer and the education community, due to unprofessional conduct," Tremblay wrote.

Sara Lambert, president of the Red Deer Catholic teachers local 80, which represents about 700 teachers, described the relationship between teachers and administration as "toxic" around the time Mason was fired.

Lambert said she's thankful the hearing committee and government found Mason responsible for his actions.

The lack of information from the school board about Mason's departure has been frustrating and created tension, she said.

"The idea of not knowing certainly that hinders the relationship," she said. "Because, are you hiding something from me?"

Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools has nearly 11,000 students in 21 schools across central Alberta.

Before publication, a spokesperson declined an interview request, and would not answer questions about what steps the division has taken to prevent employees from improperly accessing diploma exams or student records in the future.

After this story published Monday, the school division issued a statement, saying it reviewed and improved how it handles confidential information in wake of the Mason case. It also said it reviewed how division staff handle provincial and diploma exams.

The actions of one person "do not define the values and principles of Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools," the statement added.

Lambert said she was unaware of any changes in practice as a result of Mason's actions.

Cases where a school system employee abuses their position of power for academic misconduct are rare, said Darryl Hunter, a University of Alberta associate professor in education policy studies.

"You should have every confidence that you have a highly qualified professional both grading your student's work and submitting their marks," Hunter said in an interview.

The last such high-profile case involved a former Saskatchewan school principal who falsified her daughter's grades in 2015. The Saskatchewan government suspended her teaching certificate for six months.

Christopher Spence, a former Toronto District School Board director of education, is serving a two-year suspension for academic misconduct. He resigned in 2013 while facing accusations of plagiarism.

The Ontario College of Teachers suspended Spence's certificate after he was found to have plagiarized material in newspaper columns, blog posts, speeches and book passages he claimed to author.

Hunter said unauthorized access to questions on future standardized tests, such as diploma exams, undermines the fairness and accuracy of the system-wide measurement.

Cheating can create misleading results, which is unfair to students, teachers, parents, the school system and citizens who pay for standardized testing programs, he said.

Alberta should require signatures of two educators to confirm a grade change in a database to prevent tampering, he said.

David Keohane, chief executive officer of the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS), said Mason was a voluntary member of the organization when he was working as superintendent, but CASS had no involvement in the case.

"We would unequivocally not support that conduct," Keohane said. "We are thankful for the good work that the ministry did."

CASS, which sets professional standards for superintendents, says changes are afoot that should increase public confidence in school system leaders.

As of September 2024, the organization's 450 members will have to meet new mandatory continuing education requirements to keep their memberships active, he said.

Since the time Mason's case was heard, the Alberta government has changed how it regulates teachers and superintendents.

As of Jan. 1, 2023, a new provincial teaching commissioner oversees the investigation and discipline of all certified teachers and leaders accused of wrongdoing.