Christchurch principal may have been unjustifiably dismissed – ERA

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The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) officially released its determination ordering the interim reinstatement of a sacked Christchurch principal late last month. It found that the Board of Trustees (the board) made several errors in firing her.

To determine whether the principal should be reinstated, the ERA member, David Appleton, first had to decide whether she had an arguable case of unjustified dismissal. Appleton decided she did, based on several reasons.

To begin with, the board failed to provide specific information regarding allegations against the principal, Prudence Taylor, prior to their disciplinary meeting. “There are just two examples of allegations …about which Mrs Taylor was entitled to further specific information,” Appleton said. This was a breach of good faith and capable – alone – of rendering the termination unjustifiable.

However, the board also failed to accommodate the principal’s request to have her chosen representative present at the disciplinary meeting and the board may have already decided to sack her before it took place. This last finding was based on a letter that the board wrote to the principal, before the disciplinary meeting, advising her that it had lost trust and confidence in her leadership, Appleton observed.

Other reasons for Appleton’s decision were the lack of evidence that the principal had previously been informed that she was facing dismissal, the confusion of culpability and misconduct issues, and the failure to follow proper disciplinary procedures, as outlined in the principal’s contract.

Appleton then considered whether there was an arguable case for reinstatement, deciding that there was. “I am unable to identify a single specific incident that is alleged to have taken place in respect of which any of the three senior managers could reasonably (or at all) assert that Mrs Taylor has behaved unprofessionally towards them,” he wrote.   

In discussing the ‘overall justice’ of the case, Appleton noted the personal animosity that he detected towards the principal, and how this may have interfered with their duty as her employer. “It would not be just to take at face value the respondent’s argument that trust and confidence had broken down between Mrs Taylor and the Board, when there is evidence to suggest that the Board has been at least partially responsible for that breakdown,” he said.

Appleton then detailed a plan of action for the principal’s reinstatement. A full, substantive hearing on the matter will take place in early February, and the board has said in a press release that it feels confident that it will be more successful at this second hearing. “The substantive investigation in February will examine all issues and we are very confident that the reasons for our serious concerns will become evident at that time,” it stated.

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