Former PHPS superintendent faces five criminal charges

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Former Pembina Hills Public Schools Supt. Colleen Symyrozum-Watt will be in Barrhead Provincial Court today, Sept. 11, facing charges she submitted over $18,000 in fraudulent claims between November 2014 and January 2017.

Arrested and released June 25, Symyrozum-Watt, 55, faces two counts of fraud over $5,000, two counts of fraud under $5,000 and one charge of criminal breach of trust, according to a Sept. 4 RCMP press release.

RCMP media relations officer Cpl. Ronald Bumbry said Symyrozum-Watt was released on a promise to appear without needing to speak to bail.

“With these types of cases, we like to give the Crown and defence time to prepare properly for first appearance, because there may be multiple documents that they need to go through,” said Bumbry when asked about the delay between the arrest and first court appearance.

Symyrozum-Watt, who lives in the Busby area, served as Pembina Hills Supt. from 2012 until her contract was terminated with cause July 31, 2017 — the motion to terminate her contract was passed by trustees that same day.

The same motion stated that an independent investigator and legal counsel found that she had breached various contractual, division policy and administrative procedure requirements related to per diems, expenses, vacation days and nepotism.

The motion also stated Symyrozum-Watt had counselled employees to misrepresent information to trustees, engaged in harassing behaviour and was dishonest in responding to questions during the formal investigation.

On Sept. 26, 2017, trustees also passed a motion to submit a complaint regarding Symyrozum-Watt’s contractual and procedural breaches to the Barrhead RCMP, as well as the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) and Alberta Education’s Office of the Registrar.

Throughout this entire process, Symyrozum-Watt has maintained the allegations against her are false, and at one point stated she would pursue legal action against the PHPS for defamation, though it’s unclear if she ever did.

“The board set out to find cause to support their intention to dismiss and their decision was made at the end of an unduly long, unnecessary and painful process that has disrupted the lives and reputations of several people,” she said Aug. 4, 2017.

Asked to comment on the charges now facing her, Symyrozum-Watt stated in a Sept. 8 e-mail that she now has the opportunity “to defend myself, as anyone would in these circumstances.”

“I greatly appreciate the continued support of my family, colleagues and friends,” she added.

The investigation

Pembina Hills chair Jennifer Tuininga was first notified on Jan. 27, 2017 regarding allegations of harassment and bullying.

The information was submitted to the board chair under the “whistleblower” provisions outlined in Pembina Hills’ administrative procedure and Alberta’s Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act.

On Feb. 1, 2017, trustees appointed a two-member ad hoc sub-committee to investigate the allegations. A lawyer was retained through the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) to review the evidence and also interview staff.

The ad-hoc sub-committee submitted its final report July 27, 2017 and the final legal opinion was given the next day.

The motion to terminate her contract was passed three days later and since she was terminated with cause and no severance payment, or retirement allowance was paid.

Tuininga, who was one of the two trustees on that sub-committee, said they took the case seriously and “made difficult decisions where it was needed.”

She also pointed out the changing legal environment around these issues as trustees were informed of these allegations under whistleblower legislation.

“It protects people, enabling them to come forward when there are issues,” she said.

Although the information was submitted to the RCMP a year ago, Bumbry said these types of investigations typically take time.

He noted that prior to charges being laid, the RCMP had consulted with the Crown prosecutor to ensure there were sufficient grounds to proceed.

“In this particular case, the Crown was consulted, and as a result, she was arrested on that particular date,” he added.

Other complaints

Prior to these charges, Symyrozum-Watt was acting as a director of leadership learning with the College of Alberta School Superintendents.

It is unknown when she took on the role, although CASS executive director Barry Litun said it was a contract position.

The association’s board of directors learned earlier this summer that the RCMP investigation into Symyrozum-Watt had resulted in criminal charges.

“At that time, CASS and Ms. Symyrozum-Watt mutually agreed that she take a leave of absence as a director of leadership learning until the matter had been resolved,” said CASS president Kurt Sacher.

As to the complaint submitted by Pembina Hills, Litun also said they had been advised by legal counsel not to initiate any review of Symyrozum-Watt’s professional conduct “when it is apparent at the time of the complaint that there is the potential of criminal and/or civil legal undertakings.”

It is worth noting that Symyrozum-Watt had previously been elected the president of CASS in July 2016.

It is also unclear if the provincial Office of the Registrar ever pursued an investigation regarding Symyrozum-Watt, as no one at Alberta Education would confirm if that was the case.

However, a media representative with the ministry did provide an audio recording where education minister David Eggen commented that he was very concerned about the situation in Pembina Hills.

“We are following this situation very closely,” Eggen said.

“I expect superintendents and administrators to rise to the highest level of responsibility. Potentially, this is quite a breach of that.”

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