We have no choice
MPs to continue making recommendations for school boards despite Integrity Commission's concerns
HUTCHINSON... criticised by Integrity Commission for appointng spouse to boards of five public schools in his constituency

THE practice of Members of Parliament recommending people to serve on school boards is set to continue despite concerns raised recently by the Integrity Commission.

Responding to questions from the Jamaica Observer during a post-Cabinet media briefing on Wednesday, Education Minister Fayval Williams said while changes are being made to the appointment of people to serve on school boards, MPs continue to have a role to play.

Williams pointed to efforts being led by the Ministry of Finance and Public Service to introduce legislation to deal with how people are appointed to the boards of public bodies, and said the education sector will take its cue from that.

"We are looking at that to see how best we can use that, probably modified, in our sector. We have more than 1,000 [school] boards across Jamaica to which we appoint persons. Over the years, historically…our Members of Parliament have been involved in recommending members to the boards. That has happened over decades.

"We understand that we are in 2022 now and there have been changes in terms of public bodies' board, and we do understand that at school boards we need to look at the process as well as to how we engage persons to be on our school boards," added Williams.

In a report to Parliament last week, the Integrity Commission recommended that the education ministry should create, implement and enforce a policy regarding conflicts of interest involving MPs and the people they put up for appointment to school boards.

The commission made the recommendation in a report in which it called out MP for St Elizabeth North Western JC Hutchinson for "appalling conduct" and impropriety in his role as a public servant with the responsibility to act with fairness and transparency in discharging his duties.

The report said Hutchinson recommended his intimate partner of 32 years, Lola Marshall Williams, for appointment to the board of five publicly funded schools within his constituency on at least 11 occasions since 2008. This was done despite multiple documented objections from stakeholders including the ministry of education's regional director and the principals of the schools.

"It is recommended that the National Council on Education and/or the Ministry of Education implement and promote a merit-based system by which a qualified person may apply for and be appointed to serve on school boards.

"It is further recommended that this system be supported by a training programme, akin to the justice of the peace training programme conducted prior to commission, with a view to preparing persons to serve on school boards. This recommendation is posited in an effort to reduce the politicisation of the process and to minimise the appearance of nepotism and conflicts of interest, which threaten the integrity of the appointment process and, by extension, the governance of the public entities involved," the commission said.

The commission also recommended that the Education Regulations 1980 be revised to include strict guidelines regarding the management, disclosure, and avoidance of conflicts of interest in the acceptance of recommendations for individuals to be appointed to school boards.

But addressing the post-Cabinet media briefing, Williams argued that it is tough to get people to serve on school boards and reasoned that MPs had to play a role as they know the people in the communities where the schools are located.

"We have to utilise currently our Members of Parliament who know the people in the communities, who can encourage the people to go on boards. The incident that surfaced had to do with one person being on multiple boards in a particular area. We would love to see different people step forward to serve on school boards but, again, we understand the imperative for the modernisation of how we select persons on boards and we are committed to moving in that direction," declared Williams as she noted that people are not paid to serve on school boards.

She pointed out that the National Council on Education is responsible for ensuring that school boards are in place and that the board members are trained to ensure that they are aware of their responsibilities, but argued that greater effort should be made to ensure that people who want to serve know how to offer themselves.

"We also have to look at the issue of term limits [and] we have to modernise the framework under which we put together our boards. There will have to be legislative changes, and as we go forward there are things that we will do," added Williams.

BY ARTHUR HALL Editor-at-Large halla@jamaicaobserver.com

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