Alberta education minister rebuked over privacy in mass email to teachers

On the day Education Minister Jeff Johnson was rebuked for contacting teachers via their personal email addresses, his department clarified what limited information it wants from school boards on teacher discipline cases.

On the day Education Minister Jeff Johnson was rebuked for contacting teachers via their personal email addresses, his department clarified what limited information it wants from school boards on teacher discipline cases.

Alberta privacy commissioner Jill Clayton announced Thursday that Johnson was wrong to send a mass email to the personal emails of over 34,000 teachers in February. Clayton recommended that while Johnson should be able to communicate with teachers directly through their business email addresses, all personal addresses of teachers should be removed from the minister’s mailing list.

“The heart of this matter is transparency,” Clayton said in a release, “Even if you have authority to share information, it is important to be up front with people as to why their personal information is being collected and how it will be used.”

Signed simply “Jeff,” the minister’s conversational-style February missive called for greater co-operation and exchange of ideas between the ministry and teachers on issues such as curriculum redesign and contract talks with the Alberta Teachers’ Association. The privacy commissioner received 34 complaints in March from persons who had received the message.

Johnson wrote in his email, “We need to have open communications and ensure you have access to accurate information. … You will be hearing from me on a regular basis.” He also called for teachers to contact him directly.

In her report, Clayton stated that the department can seek information from teachers in conducting “evaluative analyses” on education, but that Johnson did not include in the email any particular purpose for which teacher feedback would be used.

In an email to The Canadian Press Thursday, Johnson said that he would comply with the ruling, but also that a middle ground is required. He said many teachers are not provided with a work email account and thus need to use their personal email in a professional capacity.

“As the ministry is both the registrar and regulator of the teaching profession we will work with the privacy commissioner to ensure we develop a method of communicating on professional matters that reaches as many teachers as possible.

“I believe teachers deserve to hear from me directly about issues and developments that may affect them.”

Opposition parties and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) applauded the ruling and said Johnson had violated the trust of educators.

The ATA had called on the privacy commissioner earlier this week to rule on whether Johnson had overstepped his mandate by asking school boards across the province to provide records of all complaints regarding teacher misconduct or incompetence over the last 10 years.

On Thursday, the Alberta School Boards Association informed boards that they would now only be asked to provide five years of records and that no personal information need be disseminated. Details requested are what occurred, how it was addressed, and the financial impact on the division. The deadline for providing the records has been extended four days to July 15.

In his letter, Johnson wrote that many board chairs have expressed concerns regarding the process of dealing with teacher misconduct and incompetence and that improvements to the process are needed.

The request comes on the heels of the government-commissioned Task Force for Teaching Excellence report, which claimed that as both the union representing teachers and the body responsible for enforcing teacher discipline, the ATA is in conflict. The report recommends giving the Education Ministry authority to handle allegations relating to teacher conduct.

Central Alberta school boards are working to comply with the request, and some board chairs say they are supportive of efforts to improve the discipline machinations.

“It’s not a big item but it can become big specific to one incidence when it does happen. It can take many hundreds of hours and many thousands of dollars to address; it is very challenging,” said Guy Pelletier, Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division chair.

Chinook’s Edge School Division board chair Colleen Butler agreed that the process needs to be simplified, as it can be cumbersome and costly.

“Teachers still need to be protected, you can’t be going on a witch hunt. There has to be a due process that’s fair, but I think that right now it’s very difficult to move forward with it,” she said.

Pelletier said most boards will seek other ways to resolve such situations to avoid the protracted procedures. Settlements may be reached or the teachers in question may move on.

Red Deer Public School District chair Bev Manning said the existing process has worked for her division in the 8-10 cases it has dealt with over the last decade. She said the board would simply like more detail from Johnson on what exactly he is trying to accomplish by collecting all the information.

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