Suspension of longtime Sisler principal over exam tampering allegations punitive: union

A prominent Winnipeg high school principal has been suspended after being accused of creating a toxic workplace and tampering with exams — complaints his union says are punitive and not backed with enough information.

George Heshka, who is in his late 80s, has been the principal at Sisler High School for 40 years. He has won numerous accolades for his work, including the Order of Manitoba. He recently had a park named after him.

CBC News obtained a letter the union that represents Manitoba educators sent to the Winnipeg School Division.

In it, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society threatens to file a grievance, and requests Heshka be reinstated immediately.

“I am writing at this time to express significant concern with the way the division has handled these apparent complaints,” union representative Andrew Peters writes in the letter, dated Nov. 25.

“The action taken by the division in suspending him, is seen both by George and his colleagues as punitive.”

Division ‘ambushed’ principal: union

Heshka had been away on sick leave since September 2020, the letter said, but was medically cleared to go back to work in November.

That’s when Winnipeg School Division officials asked Heshka to meet, saying they wanted to support his return to school.

Heshka was told a human resources representative would be there, according to the MTS letter. He asked for more details, and was told it had to do with dogs being allowed in classrooms and an issue with another staff member’s work schedule.

With that information, Heshka decided to go to the meeting without a union representative.

But instead of talking about a return to work, the union said Heshka was “essentially ambushed” by school division officials.

Heshka was told there were complaints against him, and that he’d immediately be put on paid administrative leave.

MTS said the division refused to provide Heshka any details about the complaints, saying only that they were about a toxic workplace and exam tampering.

Heshka has been placed on paid administrative leave, according to the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (University of Winnipeg)

The union accuses the school division of not following the proper process, saying complaints must be given in writing, and the person must be given a chance to defend themselves.

“Neither of these mandated safeguards was complied with by the division prior to George being placed on suspension,” Peters, the MTS representative, wrote.

The union wants the school division to say who lodged the allegations, what they’re about, and what they’ve done to investigate.

They also want the division to explain why Heshka was given inaccurate information about the reason for the meeting, and why a union member wasn’t invited.

Both the Manitoba Teachers’ Society and the Winnipeg School Division told CBC News they can’t comment on the matter, citing privacy matters.

CBC News reached Heshka by phone, but he said he wanted to consult with his union before agreeing to an interview.

Award-winning principal

Heshka has been principal since 1980 at Sisler, a school in Winnipeg’s North End with more than 1,800 students — the largest student population at any Manitoba school.

In 2018, a park was dedicated in his name.

“Heshka played a vital role in the school being named one of Canada’s 10 best schools by Maclean’s magazine,” a news release from the Winnipeg School Division at the time said.

George Heshka with former city councillor Mike Pagtakhan during a park naming in Winnipeg in 2018. Heshka has received numerous awards for his work in Winnipeg’s North End, including the Order of Manitoba and an honorary doctor of letters from the University of Winnipeg. (Winnipeg School Division)

He was also honoured by the University of Winnipeg with an honorary doctor of letters degree.

“Heshka is known as a visionary leader in the heart of Winnipeg’s North End. His progressive ideas have transformed Sisler into an innovative institute with award-winning programs,” a University of Winnipeg biography said.

“Heshka’s students describe him as ‘an awesome principal, who is caring and helpful.’ He is highly respected by his peers,” the biography said.

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