Clear rules required to separate corporate interests from our public school boards

Surrey superintendent of schools, Dr. Jordan Tinney, appears in a testimonial for Fresh Grade — a Kelowna-based tech company that sells a student assessment and portfolio system to B.C. school boards. Is that going too far for a school board employee? 

Tinney and Fresh Grade
Surrey school board superintendent Jordan Tinney appears in a video testimonial for Fresh Grade — one of C21's corporate partners shown on the right. Images courtesy C21 website.

Would you be alarmed if your doctor did a testimonial for a pharmaceutical company?

What if she went on trips paid for by one and later prescribed you a medication the company makes? What if the research she based her prescribing decision on was funded by the same pharmaceutical company?

Vancouver parent and public health professor Dr Farah Shroff says it’s becoming standard to disclose conflicts of interest as a matter of course in the health care field and that it’s time to do the same in public education.

“Conflicts of interest, real or perceived, ought to be fully disclosed and this ought to be a rule within the sector,” says Shroff. “The public education system is best served with unbiased and cost-effective information about large purchases such as IT equipment.”

I asked Shroff, who serves in parent leadership positions at the school, district and provincial level, about this as I was writing my column last week about whether government should bring in conflict-of-interest rules for school district leaders.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) has called on government to bring in rules to provide transparency when senior public school board officials have external affiliations with businesses that sell products and services to school districts, along with rules about disclosing when they accept personal benefits like airfare, hotel accommodation, meals, beverages, gifts and payments.

I noted that Christy Clark’s government, which has earned B.C. the nickname the “Wild West” for its anything-goes, loose political-campaign finance rules, hasn’t taken action on this and I recommended that the B.C. NDP and Green party should consider it as part of their election platforms.   

After my column was published last week, a reader noted that not only do some school board superintendents openly participate in organizations that bring them together with corporate partners who appear to foot the bill, some provide testimonials for corporations.

They pointed me to Kelowna-based Fresh Grade — the brainchild of the creators of the popular-among-the kids online game Club Penguin, which they sold to Disney for $350 million in 2007.

Fresh Grade, which is an online, real-time student reporting system that can replace traditional paper report cards, is growing in popularity among B.C. school districts — and some district superintendents.

One likes it enough to appear in a video testimonial that’s featured on the Fresh Grade website. And Dr. Jordan Tinney isn’t just any superintendent — he’s the head of the largest public school district in B.C.: Surrey. That makes for an impressive and valuable endorsement for any education-sector business.

I contacted Tinney, who I’ve known since he worked for the Vancouver School Board (VSB) as its deputy superintendent, with some questions about the testimonial and his relationship to Fresh Grade.

Tinney’s one of the most respected and principled educational leaders in B.C. and I know he makes decisions carefully and thoughtfully so I wanted to understand his perspective.

He told me that he was asked to provide the Fresh Grade testimonial and gave it careful consideration and ultimately agreed to do it.

“I have had similar requests from time to time and I judge each one. I think this year I've done about three but some are for community agencies, support for specific provincial programs like physical literacy etc.,” Tinney told me via email. “I have also turned down offers that I don't think are right.”

I asked if he had any reservations about doing the Fresh Grade testimonial and he said he checks his “radar” often and that “this was, like the others above, me speaking about an initiative or program. There is no gain to me”

Tinney said he doesn’t accept payment for speaking or presenting (on the one occasion someone insisted, he directed them to his district’s business development office to provide funds to an inner-city school) and if he believes an event is worth attending, he will use his own professional development funds to cover his costs.

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