An unusually nasty power struggle over control of Norway’s largest school district now threatens to topple Oslo’s entire city government. The struggle pits longtime Oslo school administrators against their new political leader Inga Marte Thorkildsen, leaving her boss, city government leader Raymond Johansen, to resolve the conflict or face a lack of confidence vote himself.
Johansen had been staying in the background of the power struggle that has now exploded, after a copy of an unprecedented formal complaint against Thorkildsen was sent to newspaper Aftenposten and publicized last week. That followed weeks of coverage in newspaper Dagsavisen about the conflict that had been simmering at least since last spring, when the veteran administrator of Oslo schools, Astrid Søgnen, was harshly criticized for limiting teachers’ freedom of speech and running the school district with “an iron hand” for nearly 20 years.
Søgnen, a former Labour Party politician, didn’t encounter much political opposition during her lengthy tenure even though Oslo was run under a series of Conservatives-led city governments. Several Conservative politicians have actually been defending her recently. Things clearly changed after Johansen’s Labour Party won control of the city government in the 2015 election and formed a new left-wing coalition comprised of Labour, the Socialist Left party (SV) and the Greens. Thorkildsen, a former state government minister for SV in Jens Stoltenberg’s Labour-led coalition, was brought in first to head up Oslo’s health care and nursing home services and transferred over to political leader of the schools from the first of the year.
Now the school administration under Søgnen is being accused of refusing to concede power to its new political leadership. Thorkildsen has stated that she has experienced a “lack of cooperation and teamwork” from the city’s education department (Utdanningsetaten i Oslo), which ranks as the largest municipal entity in the country with 15,000 employees serving 90,000 children and teens. Dagsavisen has reported that Thorkildsen’s leadership has been “actively opposed” and undermined by the school administrators led by Søgnen.
They fired back on the evening of September 6, when the anonymous administrators under Søgnen, a former Labour Party politician herself, filed the official compaint against Thorkildsen. A copy was leaked to Aftenposten which ran a front-page story last Wednesday detailing its contents. It put Thorkildsen in a very bad light indeed, with claims that she has “screamed and yelled” to various employees, “wildly” waved her arms, burst into tears and stirred up suspicions against employees at meetings. They claimed Thorkildsen thus created uncertainty and a working environment that was intolerable.
It’s the first time a top city politician has ever been the target of such a formal complaint and it immediately put Thorkildsen, who called the complaint “sad,” and the Labour-led city government on the defensive. Those complaining wrote, according to Aftenposten, that they realized how serious it was for them to file such a complaint against their political leadership, but they felt “obligated as leaders” themselves to bring this to the attention of Thorkildsen’s superior.
That’s Johansen, who went on national radio Wednesday morning to explain how he now intends to handle the anonymous complaints that Thorkildsen has both “frightened, harassed and humilated” school administrators and behaved inappropriately. Thorkildsen, who also attracted complaints while leading the city’s nursing home, is further accused of urging school administrators to purchase various services from former colleagues and of avoiding disclosure laws. Johansen said on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s morning talk show Politisk kvarter that while he still supports Thorkildsen in her role, he must assume that the complaints are correct. A second complaint was released this week against Thorkildsen, over how she reacted to the first one and allegedly has tried to “discredit” those complaining about her.
“It’s important to take all these complaints seriously,” Johansen said. “At the same time we need to gather a lot of information in order to illuminate the case.” He said he and a city attorney will go through the complaints and admitted this is “new territory” for him, since they’re unprecedented.
Opposition politicians who initially called on Johansen to take control of the situation are now urging use of impartial outside investigators. Johansen insists that since he’s her boss, it’s his responsibility.
Newspaper Dagsavisen, meanwhile, has pointed out that the first complaint was filed by education department leaders just a day after their boss, Astrid Søgnen, was informed that she should resign and retire when she turns 67 on November 8. Søgnen appealed the next day to Johansen, who reportedly confirmed that her days as Oslo’s powerful education chief were running out. Her colleagues filed their complaint hours later.
The timing has given rise to all the assessments that the situation boils down to a major power struggle that can threaten the entire government. Johansen now acknowledges that it ultimately will be up to the Oslo City Council to either accept or reject whatever conclusion he reaches on Thorkildsen and her fate. “Then the council will have one decision to make, whether it has confidence in me or not,” Johansen told Dagsavisen himself on Wednesday. “The City Council will have all opportunity to propose a lack of confidence vote in me.”
Political commentators generally agreed that someone will eventually need to resign, whether it’s Søgnen, Thorkildsen or both, and possibly Johansen. The investigation into the complaints is expected “to take some time,” Johansen said, and that he expects Thorkildsen and all employees of the city’s education department to carry out their work in the meantime.