In the wake of the controversial suspension and subsequent reinstatement of Lamar Eason, the principal of Mahone Bay's Bayview Community School, Nova Scotia's deputy education minister Cathy Montreuil told LighthouseNOW she's aware there is a need for relationship building between the community and the South Shore Regional Centre for Education (SSRCE).
However, she said her recent decision to replace SSRCE'S embattled regional executive director (RED), Scott Milner wasn't so much a response to the controversy as "a bit of serendipity."
Meanwhile, a number of Bayview parents are suggesting the action against Eason, who is black, was racially motivated.
But the former African Nova Scotian Representative on the former South Shore Regional School Board, who admits to having had issues with Lamar, has come out in support of Milner.
"To me, I don't think anything what happened between Scott and Lamar had anything to do with race," Vernon Simms insisted to LighthouseNOW after requesting to meet with the newspaper.
Milner came under fire from angry parents after they found out some three weeks after the fact that Eason had been suspended.
No details behind the suspension were forthcoming, with the SSRCE claiming it was a human resources (HR) issue, and, as such, Lamar was not allowed to discuss it either.
A petition of social media drew some 500 signatures questioning the decision, and a number of parents expressed concern about accountability within the SSRCE.
An email to parents by the school's vice-principal, Craig Pottie, wrote that the issue related to a "complaint by a colleague from last year when Lamar was Coordinator of Race Relations, Cross-Cultural Understanding and Human Rights (RCH) " which was filed in the fall and that Lamar was placed on administrative leave pending investigation."
Pottie added: "It is important for Bayview parents to note that this complaint has nothing to do with a student, our school or Lamar's ability as our Principal."
Eason was reinstated at the school in mid-December.
On December 20, the SSRCE announced that Milner was leaving his position to become the executive director of the newly formed Common Services Bureau - fulfilling the recommendations laid out by Dr. Avis Glaze in her report, Raise the Bar - and that Paul Ash, the RED for Tri-County would take his place.
Montreuil says the decision to put Milner and Ash in their new roles was the result of a combination of factors and, in itself, the timing was not solely related to the issues with the SSRCE.
"In some of the cases, some people were looking for either opportunities, some of the REDs, some of them were looking for a move for personal and professional reasons, etc.
Looking at the needs of the system and the "talents and gifts" of the various REDs, "I made a number of moves," said the deputy minister, who added that changes of this nature would normally be made at the end of a semester or in June.
"I had openings I was going to address, so this seemed to be a good place to align the skills and the people. So there was a bit of serendipity for sure."
She said the reason she chose Milner for a position at the Common Services Bureau, which will be tasked with bringing equity to education systems throughout the province - including computers as a means of teaching reading and writing - was that he had "very successfully" conducted a provincial conference at Oak Island Resort in September.
The conference drew educators from across the province, Alberta and the U.S. " to learn about technology in the classroom and assisted technology.
Meanwhile, she says Ash has "done a very good job at Tri County of building community.
"He's very strong in terms of equity of outcomes for kids. He's very, very strong at building teams. So this time at South Shore he seems to have the right constellation of skills."
While the minister defended the SSRCE, noting that it has since issued an apology to the South Shore community for not advising the parents of Eason's suspension, she says she has " heard from South Shore they would like to have a stronger listening orientation in their leadership, so I matched what I heard from the community with choice of the incoming person."
The deputy minister refused to comment on the investigation of Eason which is still ongoing, other than to say it's being conducted by an "independent third party" and that it would be "inappropriate for me to become involved in an investigation and to pressure them for timelines or whatever."
William Kowalski, one of the parents spearheading the investigative action, is adamant the issue is one of race in which "a black man being silenced at the hands of a white man. And not able to stand up for himself...
"Nobody else was removed from their job and told to go home and forbidden to even tell anybody that they were removed from their job. He couldn't even say that much. He wasn't allowed to say anything to anybody."
Simms, meanwhile, is adamant that there are no racial undertones to the suspension, although he agrees that "the ball was dropped" in not notifying parents.
He said the REC was taking the appropriate response in not commenting because it was a personnel matter, and added that Milner "is getting a raw deal.
"And I really question where would those community individuals would get that inclination that it was race-related..."
"My perception of Scott Milner was that he was doing a great job for African Nova Scotians, for Mik'maq, marginalized kids. He made some changes that would support, his heart was there for the marginalized kids. He tried to improve the overall cultural competency within the South Shore Region.
"He was doing an excellent job, so when I hear them saying that potentially there may be some racial undertones to what was happening between him and the racial and cultural coordinator, or Lamar, I found that was unfounded.
"If anything he went over and above, beyond the job."
And while he suggested he never saw any conflict between Milner, who was then superintendent of the board, and Eason as the RCH coordinator, he admits there was friction between himself and Eason.
"It got to the point where the African Nova Scotian representative asked for an independent review of the RCH policy, whether or not it was being effective and being implemented," Simms said referring to himself in the third person.
"And Scott was actually trying to fix that, up until when the school boards were being dissolved."
When later asked if he could comment on the complaint that is related to the suspension, Simms replied in an email: "No comment on the compliant [sic], that is not what I'm concerned about."
Kowalski's response to Simms's position was, "Just because one guy of colour says it's not racism doesn't mean it's not racism. That's his opinion."
Montreuil refused to comment on suggestions of a racial issue relating to the suspension.
"It would be inappropriate for me to talk about an HR issue. If that's the finding from the HR investigation, then there would be a recommendations and follow up, of course."
The deputy minister also told LighthouseNOW that it was "important for people to understand that in an HR process, any HR process, all of the employees have representation.
"And the role of those representatives, be they union, be they legal, be they association, is to make sure that the processes are fair, that the employee's voice is heard. And that if anything is happening that is untoward, unfair or inappropriate toward the employee, my experience is that the unions, the associations and the representatives are not shy to come forward with those issues."
LighthouseNOW sought to interview Milner last week but was advised he was away on holiday. Eason did not return a call from the newspaper in time for deadline.