Judge quashes wrongdoing decision against former Alberta school superintendent

A judicial review has determined Mary Lynne Campbell was deprived of procedural fairness in an investigation into her conduct as Sturgeon Public School Division superintendent. (Public School Boards' Association of Alberta/Twitter - image credit)
A judicial review has determined Mary Lynne Campbell was deprived of procedural fairness in an investigation into her conduct as Sturgeon Public School Division superintendent. (Public School Boards' Association of Alberta/Twitter - image credit)

A judge has thrown out a public interest commissioner finding that an Edmonton-area school superintendent committed wrongdoing and "created a culture of fear" during her tenure.

Court of King's Bench Justice John Little's judicial review determined Mary Lynne Campbell didn't get the procedural fairness she was owed in the investigation. The ruling quashes the 2022 decision that Campbell grossly mismanaged employees as head of the Sturgeon Public School Division.

In a statement to CBC, Campbell's lawyer called the commissioner's report "deeply flawed," and said Campbell is grateful to see closure on the issue.

"Ms. Campbell repeatedly raised significant concerns about the flawed process used by the public interest commissioner to no avail. Ms. Campbell is heartened that these concerns were vindicated by the Court."

Alberta's public interest commissioner is responsible for managing disclosure and investigation of serious matters in the public sector that employees believe may be unlawful, dangerous to the public or injurious to the public interest.

Peter Sherstan was the acting commissioner when the report on Campbell's conduct was released. Kevin Brezinski has since been appointed to the role.

A spokesperson for the Alberta ombudsman and public interest commissioner said Tuesday that the court decision is under review with a legal team, but because there is an appeal period, there won't be further comment for now.

Names withheld

Campbell was hired as the Sturgeon Public Schools superintendent in 2018, overseeing a school division that serves about 5,000 students across several communities north of Edmonton.

Alberta's public interest commissioner began an investigation in 2021 after a whistleblower complaint. Campbell went on leave during part of the investigation, and then resigned before it concluded.

She said that she believed she was well-liked by employees, and provided the commissioner with an 189-page written response, 1,616 pages of documents and 25 minutes of video to support her defence.

The commissioner determined, on a balance of probabilities, that the former administrator's conduct "resulted in a problem in the culture of the division with bullying, harassment and intimidation."

Campbell challenged the decision on the grounds that it was procedurally unfair, biased and unreasonable.

Little's ruling, issued on June 21, determined that the seriousness of the alleged wrongdoing and potential consequences for Campbell meant the commission owed her a high degree of procedural fairness — and that wasn't fulfilled.

The judge declined to make a ruling on the other grounds of Campbell's challenge, but said a decision that denies procedural fairness "has only a remote chance of being reasonable."

The commissioner's report, which Little's decision says the school board sent to all division employees, also included witness accounts about the work environment.

"The reputational damage ... can only be inestimable given that the position that [Campbell] had attained was the apex of her chosen career and those who worked in her department now have not only knowledge that a report of some sort was prepared but the sordid details of the alleged mismanagement," Little said.

An investigator interviewed 40 current and former division employees during the investigation, but the commissioner didn't tell Campbell the names of any complainants, saying whistleblower confidentiality had to be maintained.

"That may be an arguable point when current employees are blowing the whistle, but when former employees are witnesses, they cannot suffer any possible consequences from their former boss," Little said.

He found that withholding the names denied Campbell the ability to fully respond to the allegations against her.

Little also said there is "no merit" in ordering a new investigation, given that the commissioner's report notes the workplace at Sturgeon Public Schools is now functioning well.