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Defeated governor calls for re-run

A complaint of ballot maladministration has been upheld. Bob Doe reports. A candidate defeated by 11 votes in a parent governor election in which 480 too many ballot papers were issued wants the Secretary of State for Education to order the ballot re-run more than a year later.

Ray Webster was chairman of governors at Sydney Smith School in Humberside. Early last year when he stood for re-election as a parent governor, he was apparently defeated by 121 votes to his 110. But on discovering that the school, contrary to Humberside's policy, had issued one ballot paper per child, rather than one per parent, he called for fresh ballot.

Humberside declined, so Mr Webster complained to the Local Government Ombudsman. Eleven months later she has upheld his complaint of maladministration and injustice in the way the ballot was conducted, but maintains "there is no provision in the relevant law whereby the council may declare an election for a parent governors void.

"The council's policy sets out certain circumstances in which an election might or might not be rendered 'null and void' but contains no advice or instructions on how this could be brought about," says Mrs Patricia Thomas, the Ombudsman based in York.

If that is true, says Mr Webster, "it means there is no remedy, no matter how blatant or excessive the aberration. It provides carte blanche for unscrupulousness."

He is now asking Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, to direct Humberside to re-run the February 1994 election, though Mr Webster is no longer a parent at the school. His son left last July.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education says that as it is up to the local education authority to organise these elections, "it is up to the authority to declare them void and run them again if necessary". The department takes the view that just because there is no specific legal power to set aside an election result, the authority can decide whether a proper election has taken place or not.

It does not follow from this, however, that the department will order the ballot re-run, though the Secretary of State does have powers to issue directions where an education authority or governing body has failed in a duty or acted as no reasonable person would.

The report of the Ombudsman's investigation confirms that ballot papers were handed out to each of the 1,182 children at the school when, in fact, there are thought to be only 700 parents eligible to vote. It is up to a local authority to decide whether parents should have just one vote or one per child. Humberside decided in 1992 that a parent should have just one vote and that schools should maintain a register of electors reflecting this.

No such list was used in this case. The Ombudsman was told by the head of the school that drawing up a list to ensure that each eligible parent or guardian received only one ballot paper would be time-consuming and complicated because some children of the same parents had different names, and separated parents lived at different addresses.

Each ballot paper had space for up to two parents to vote, though there was no specific instruction that an individual parent or guardian should not vote more than once. Mr Webster says almost 1,000 too many opportunities to vote may have been in circulation.

The Ombudsman's report says that when the votes were counted, at least 11 postal votes for Mr Webster were discounted because they appeared to be on different paper to that used by the school. The head had confirmed that many more votes were cast than usual.

Humberside's own report on Mr Webster's complaint concluded: "Though some parents had received more than one ballot paper, there was no evidence of duplicate voting. On balance this irregularity was not sufficient to set aside the election."

Before the election Mr Webster was involved in controversy over the working practices and overtime pay of caretakers at the school. As chairman he encouraged a deputy head to video a caretaker at home during working hours and to collect other evidence on allegations that claims were being made for work not done.

After Mr Webster failed to be re-elected, the deputy head concerned, Mrs Jennifer Watson, was suspended and later sacked by the governing body though this dismissal has yet to be confirmed as the Department for Education is investigating complaints about the composition of the governors' disciplinary panel.

An investigation by Humberside officials found that in 1993-94, caretakers at the school earned Pounds 19,500 in overtime on top of their combined basic pay of Pounds 18,600 and recommended disciplinary action. No action has been taken against the caretakers pending the outcome of Mrs Watson's case.

The Ombudsman's report says nothing can be done to remedy the injustice Mr Webster suffered. He should not be compensated for the lost opportunity of holding an unpaid public office, though he should receive Pounds 50 for his time and trouble of raising his complaint and Humberside should "review its procedures so that its policy can reasonably be implemented in practice".

Humberside council has yet to consider the Ombudsman's report which it has refered to its policy committee. No meeting of that committee is scheduled at present.

Len Brattan, a parent invited to act as an independent observer at the count, was unaware at the time that some parents had more than one ballot paper. "I think it was unjust and from the parents' point of view, it should be run again."

Ian Rule, secretary of the National Association of Governors and Managers, says the election should be re-run to put the position of the present parent governor beyond doubt. The delay in doing so was regrettable. "As Mr Webster is no longer a parent it is no longer possible for him to stand."

* The Department for Education is investigating another complaint against Humberside after a local authority governor, Phil Bond, was removed from the governing body at Waltham Toll Bar comprehensive, Grimsby. Mr Bond, who was chair of governors at the school, was replaced following a decision to ballot parents on opting out.

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