Wednesday 22 January, 2020

Ruel Reid’s eventful tenure as Education Minister

Ruel Reid

Ruel Reid

When Jamaica College Principal, Ruel Reid, was elevated to the position of Minister of Education, Youth and Information after the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won the February 2016 General Elections, there were some who thought he would go down in history as one of the nation’s most successful education ministers.

After all, the Munro College old boy and teacher, was one of the most well-known presidents of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA), having served from 2005-2016.

He was also no stranger to the education portfolio, as when the JLP formed the Government after the 2007 General Elections, current Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, who was then Education Minister, named Reid as one of his advisors.

But the tenure of Ruel Reid as Minister of Education, which spanned just over three years, was one that saw him clashing several times with the teachers’ union which he once led, over several issues, including Reid’s branding of some educators as “extortionists”.

He also was at loggerheads with educators and several other sector stakeholders over his plans earlier this year to institute a gag order on teachers, administrators and school board officials in relation to criticism of Government policies unless made in a union meeting or non-political setting.

The latter would become one of the final acts by Reid, who some in the education sector described as “dictatorial”, as on March 20 this year, Reid was fired after corruption allegations emerged in relation to both the ministry and the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU). The development saw several teachers, in somewhat celebratory moods, mocking Reid on social media, especially with regards to his perceived ‘treatment of them’ during his tenure as minister.

But any possibly early return of the discarded Reid as Education Minister has now been halted, as on Wednesday of last week he was slapped with several fraud and corruption-related charges relative to the alleged siphoning of over $56 million from the Ministry of Education and the CMU.

Below, Loop News presents a timeline of the major issues that dogged Ruel Reid’s tenure as Minister of Education.

Extortion comments

One of the first rifts that developed between Reid and members of the education profession occurred on August 2, 2017, when the minister who was then speaking at a post-Cabinet media briefing, accused several school administrators of corruption and extortion in forcing parents to pay high auxiliary fees for their children in public schools. 

Reid, also a Government Senator at the time, said he had received calls from concerned parents about paying the fees demanded by some schools. He named several schools about which he had received complaints, and said those institutions would be monitored by the ministry at the time.

"I'm warning principals and (school) boards to get in line, be compliant. We'll be coming after you to make sure that you are in full compliance of the Government policy directive," Reid advised back then.

He stated, too, that “Schools are not to demand a contribution to access rental books. Schools are not to demand a contribution in order (for students) to graduate. It is a corrupt act against the policy of the Government.”

He told parents that they could not be forced to pay school fees, but indicated that they could make voluntary contributions.

After the comments were made, the JTA demanded that Reid withdraw them, which it said would serve no useful purpose than to destroy the integrity of school boards and administrators.

Though the apology was long in coming, on August 23, 2017, Reid publicly expressed his regrets at his infamous reference to some school leaders as “corrupt and extortionists” in relation to the collection of fees from parents of students.

“I want to publicly apologise for the hurts that may have occurred in that regard… The (education) minister is responsible for spiritual leadership within the education sector. And so, as a lay pastor myself, I have to lead by example. There are times when... and I remember when Jesus himself had to use some harsh words. And He Himself had to reflect on it. I have personally reached out and I have said to persons that I have withdrawn those statements,” Reid told delegates in attendance at the final day of the three-day JTA 53rd Annual Conference at the Hilton Rose Hall Resort and Spa in Montego Bay, St James.

PEP issues

Several educators across the country chastised Reid for his perceived rush at implementing the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) exams to in replacement of the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). Concerns raged further following the completion of the June 2018 PEP mock exams in which several teachers complained about the type of questions that were administered to the students.

Dr Garth Anderson opened his one-year presidency of the JTA at the annual conference in August of 2018 by calling for the introduction of PEP to be postponed on the basis that both teachers and students were not ready for it, and for the GSAT to be continued for some time longer. Anderson expressed concern then, that teachers would be blamed if PEP failed.

However, the Reid-led Ministry of Education was adamant that the new exams would continue, heightening further concerns among parents and educators.

To complicate matters, controversy developed when some parents received book lists from schools which contained GSAT books and not PEP-oriented textbooks.

In September of 2018, the ministry finally admitted that more work would have to be done on students who were due to sit the PEP exams in the first year of its introduction, specifically in the area of critical thinking skills. The ministry said then in a statement, that the shortcomings in that area were uncovered from the results of the mock exam that was administered in June of that year.

Ruel Reid

In October, 2018, following consultations with the JTA, the Ministry of Education doubled down on its stance and decided to postpone the Performance Task segment of the PEP examination. The segment, which had been scheduled for December 2018, was pushed back to March 2019.

Despite other concerns, the PEP exams were implemented as scheduled, surprising without much contention between the ministry and the JTA in the final stages.

Nutrition policy and nutri-bulla ban

Last year, Reid was forced to defend the Education Ministry’s nutritional policy, and to remove bullas from schools. While addressing the 54th JTA Annual Conference earlier that year, Reid announced that several food items, including the popular bulla cake, would be removed from public schools as part of a campaign to promote healthier eating among students.

Some educators took issue with the removal of the bullas, popularly known as ‘nutri-bullas’, and indicated that there were few or no feasible alternatives in the face of the removal of the bulla cakes at the start of the academic year in September 2018. One primary and junior high school principal, at a parish municipal corporation meeting in October 2018, chastised the ministry for the removal of the nutri-bullas from the primary school feeding programme, with its reported replacement with manna pack rice from the United States.

Reid, however, defended the banning of bullas, stating that students were not eating it, and expressed satisfaction that students were receiving healthier meals, including wraps, sandwiches and water.

The ministry would again take a U-turn and re-introduce nutri-bullas, but with a healthier twist, in November of 2018.

Speaking in the House of Representatives last year, then Minister of State in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, Floyd Green, said Nutrition Products Limited (NPL) was requested to explore whether the present provisions could be reformulated into healthier options, especially in the case of items that have become almost synonymous with the school-feeding programme.

“In the case of bullas, there has been a new formula that has been put together, and as such, that has cut the sugar content by 10 per cent, bringing it more in alignment with the Ministry of Health requirements. With that reformulation, we have started the redistribution of bullas into our school system as snacks,” Green stated.

Concerns over Jamaica Teaching Council Bill

Educators, including their union, the JTA, had expressed reservations in the latter part of 2018 over the proposed Jamaica Teaching Council (JTC) Bill.

The JTC Bill seeks to provide for the establishment of a governing body for the teaching profession, and a regime for the licensing and registration of all Government-paid teachers. The bill would also introduce new procedures, such as professional disciplinary action for teachers and principals.

In August of 2018, following Reid’s announcement that final reviews were than taking place on the proposed legislation, then JTA president, Garth Anderson, stressed that while the members were not opposed to the bill, it was felt that the penalties were excessive. 

"...I am concerned that the bill seems to criminalise certain breaches. For example, operating without a licence could see a teacher serving six months in prison or pay half a million dollars (in fine)," he highlighted during a media interview.  

He added that "this is a bill to aid in the professionalisation of teaching, and not a crime plan for the teaching profession." 

While it was not clear if the concerns of the JTA were taken into consideration, Reid announced in the Senate on February 1, 2019, that the JTC Bill had been approved by Cabinet.

“The JTC bill that has been languishing for many years… We have now just had the approval from Cabinet, and will receive comments from the AG's (Attorney General's) Department and go back to legislative committee. We expect to lay the JTC bill on the table of Parliament in short order,” Reid then outlined in his presentation in the State of the Nation debate.

Dengue concerns and the reopening of schools

Just before the opening of the new school term in January of 2019, Reid squared off with Portmore’s mayor, Leon Thomas, over his (Thomas’) calls for the postponement of the opening of schools in the Sunshine City for another three days to accommodate vector-control activities in light of a dengue fever outbreak then.

Portmore Mayor, Leon Thomas, who called for schools in the municipality to remain closed for three additional days at the end of the Christmas holidays in 2018, to accommodate vector-control activities in light of a dengue fever outbreak then, did not find favour with then Education Minister, Ruel Reid. 

Reid dismissed the mayor’s call, and insisted that the dengue fever concerns were “localised”, and schools did not have to be closed. He ordered that all schools in the area must be opened, and all students should return to school.

Mayor Thomas had contended that several cases of the mosquito-borne virus were present in the municipality, and the grounds of several schools had not been fumigated over the holidays, resulting in the ‘necessity’ for the three additional day of closure at the schools.

In the end, the Portmore school administrators followed the minister’s instructions, and the schools were opened.

Concept paper and issues of victimisation

One of Reid’s final run-ins with members of the education profession, which also became a raging national issue, was his involvement in the a crafting of a concept paper by the Ministry of Education that proposed placing a gag order on teachers, administrators and school board officials in relation to criticising Government policies unless made in a union meeting or non-political setting. That meant that educators could not criticise the ministry, for example, on social media sites.

The then education minister’s proposal to also set limits on political representation among serving educators was revealed to the public on January 31 this year. This was two days after Wolmer’s Boys’ School Principal, Dr Walton Small, was officially presented as the People’s National Party’s (PNP) candidate for St James Southern, which is currently represented in Parliament by the PNP’s Derrick Kellier, who has indicated that he will not be seeking re-election..

The proposed regulations also warned that teachers or principals who are active in politics can be sanctioned if they fail to follow policy directives or allow their biases to affect the implementation of ministry policies or the running of their schools.

There was also a plan to outlaw situation in which a principal and a board chairman at the same school could be both active in politics.

Following criticisms that his proposed code of conduct was “anti-democratic and dictatorial”, Reid, who himself was up to that time the JLP’s caretaker/candidate for the North West St Ann constituency while still occupying the post of principal of Jamaica College, from which he was on secondment and later leave of absence, announced on February 27, 2019, that his plans would be referred to the National Council on Education (NCE).

But it was later stated in media reports that the NCE had been dissolved by that time, and no comment subsequently came from Reid on whether that was factual.

Prior to his proposed concept paper, Reid had been accused of victimising educators. At a JLP Area Council One meeting held in October 2018, Reid instructed that chairmen of school boards, as well as principals, ensure that policies developed by the ministry are implemented.

Speaking in his capacity as a caretaker for the governing party, Reid said he was aware that some school board chairmen and principals were trying to sabotage Government policies. He said it should be remembered that he appointed chairmen of school boards, and he could “take action” if the policies of the Government were not implemented.

There have also been questions surrounding the movement of several top-level technocrats out of the Education Ministry during Reid’s tenure as minister.

Charges laid

The crafting of the concept paper for educators and board chairmen would be one of the final acts for Reid as minister, as when allegations of fraud and corruption arose in relation to the ministry, he was asked to resign by the prime minister on March 20.

And on Wednesday, October 9, following months of investigation, the former education minister was charged with breaches of the Corruption Prevention Act (CPA), conspiracy to defraud, misconduct in a public office at common law, and beaches of the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA), according to a release from the joint investigating agencies.

Reid and President of the CMU, Professor Fritz Pinnock, along with their co-accused, were granted bail in the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court the following day.

Reid was granted bail in the sum of $3 million with one or two sureties. His wife, Sharen, was granted bail in the sum of $1 million, and his daughter, Sharelle, $500,000.

All three were ordered to report to the Matilda's Corner Police Station in St Andrew every Wednesday and Saturday.

They were also ordered to surrender their travel documents, and stop orders have been placed against them.

The other accused, Pinnock and Councillor of the Brown’s Town Division in North West St Ann, Kim Brown-Lawrence, were also granted bail.

The court appearance was preceded by a pre-dawn joint operation involving the Financial Investigations Division (FID) of the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service, the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA), and the Constabulary Financial Unit of the Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime Division (C-TOC), in which four homes were simultaneously raided across three parishes – St Andrew, St Catherine and St Ann.

The investigative agencies jointly indicated that the massive operation was part of investigations into allegations of corruption, fraud and misappropriation of public funds involving the Education Ministry and the CMU.

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