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Prince George school district trustees deny ex-superintendent's claim of 'toxic workplace'

"No basis in law for an award of punitive damages," school board trustees say in response to civil claim
Anita Richardson
Anita Richarson pictured at the SD57 board offices

The School District 57 Board of Education is denying ex-superintendent Anita Richardson's allegation that she suffered maltreatment during her time at the posting.

"There is no basis in law for an award of punitive damages because the School Board did not engage in any extreme, harsh, vindictive, reprehensible, malicious behaviour," according to a response to Richardson's civil claim filed on behalf of the board.

The document was filed August 2 at the Prince George courthouse, roughly 3 1/2 weeks after Richardson filed a claim in which she alleges she "experienced a toxic work environment and bullying and harassment" over the one year she held down the job before taking a leave of absence.

Trustees did agree with Richardson that in the aftermath of taking the leave, she filed a complaint alleging they breached both the school board's respectful workplace policy and rights and responsibilities policy and, in turn, a third party was brought in to investigate the complaint.

But they deny Richardson' allegation that it was some seven weeks after the complaint was filed that the investigation was started, although a specific date was not provided in the response.

They also deny Richardson's allegation that the summary of the investigator's findings confirmed and substantiated several of her complaints, but do not provide further details on what the investigator specifically states.

Trustees and Richardson also differ on the reasons for her eventual dismissal.

On that note, they advised Richardson that she was going to be let go because her relationship with area First Nations was "difficult and there was a lack of trust" and that her continued employment as superintendent "would make a constructive relationship with the First Nations very difficult."

In her notice of claim, Richardson agreed those were the reasons she was given but contends her relationship with the First Nations was actually good and that it was the trustees' conduct that undermined it.

Moreover, she said difficult relations with the First Nations existed before she had been hired and that trustees failed to seek Richardson's advice or implement specific strategies she had developed to improve the situation.

She alleges the termination was "made in bad faith" and, in part, made to make her a "scapegoat" for issues raised in report from two special advisors, appointed by the Ministry of Education, that was critical of the board's governance practices and relations with First Nations

Trustees also say Richardson was given three additional days to respond to the reasons given for her termination. They agree with Richardson that she had asked for a copy of the investigator's report and, in response, she was given a redacted version but for reasons of privacy.

They also further clarified that the reasons for her termination did not require her to respond to the entirety of the special advisors' report, according to the response.

Trustees "reviewed and considered" Richardson's written responses prior to making their decision in late-January 2022 to end her employment and noted that she had "no contractual entitlement to a hearing prior" prior to taking the step.

In a separate filing, the school board also disputes that the B.C. Supreme Court has jurisdiction over the matter. Reasons for this were not set out in the filing but in the response to Richardson's claim, it is contended that she is defined as a worker under the Workers' Compensation Act and that any claims she may have for damages are barred by operation of the WCA.

In her notice of claim, Richardson also singled out former trustees Trent Derrick and Shuirose Valimohamed. They are specifically named as defendants and are accused of working to undermine Richardson's relationship with First Nations communities the school district served.

Neither has yet filed a response while the response filed on behalf of the remaining trustees claims allegations raised by Richardson about Derrick and Valimohamed are "outside the knowledge of the Defendant."

The trustees' filing describes Richardson's claim as "prolix" or overly wordy, and is "not limited to the material facts required" to plead her claims. "The Notice of Claim should be struck accordingly," they add.

The filing also states Richardson has received or is continuing to receive her severance and all other entitlements owed to her and that there is no basis for any claim that the board breached her employment contract.

Richardson's employment agreement was good for five years ending on Dec. 17, 2024, with a starting salary of $194,790 plus benefits. If terminated without cause, she was entitled to one year severance if employed in the position for 18 to 35 months.

It also says she has since found a new job with another school district.

None of the allegations have yet been tested in court.