Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Principal' Allan eyes board secrecy

Winnipeg School Division much too opaque

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Everyone knows that if you misbehave at school, you get sent to the principal's office.

So it is for the trustees of the Winnipeg School Division. Faced with increasing concern about a lack of transparency and accountability, the trustees find themselves perilously close to being called on the carpet by Education Minister Nancy Allan.

Allan said in an interview she is following closely the developments at Manitoba's biggest school division, which has come under attack for a growing list of practices that keep most of its deliberations and decision-making behind closed doors.

"I am watching very closely," Allan said. "It's really important that boards make decisions in consultation with parents and their communities."

Allan said she has dispatched senior staff to talk with the WSD chair and trustees to find out why so much division business is being conducted behind closed doors. Allan said she has been told a motion to improve accountability -- initially suffocated under a barrage of procedural technicalities -- will be reconsidered next week. "Let's just say I'm encouraged that they are going to look at this closely," she said.

Allan did not threaten to intervene, but she repeatedly noted she has not been reluctant to get involved directly when trustees abandon the principles of accountability and transparency.

Such was the case earlier this year in the Turtle River School Division, the smallest in the province, after parents complained key decisions were being made in camera. In March, Allan sent deputy education minister Gerald Farthing to the division, near Riding Mountain, to enforce the importance of accountability and transparency.

Turtle River is a good example of how some school boards simply forget their obligation to conduct business out in the open. For example, Turtle River has consistently refused to respond to requests for budget information from Free Press education reporter Nick Martin.

Like any public organization, school divisions generally do not have the prerogative to deny the media basic information about their budgets. Of course, if you never actually get on the phone with a reporter, then you can say with convenient honesty that you've never turned down a request for information.

At the Winnipeg School Division, the dearth of accountability has reached epidemic proportions. An increasing amount of board business has been taken in camera for reasons that are not entirely clear. The board has barred the public and media from budget discussions and has refused to release the results of division-wide testing. It has even stopped recording trustee votes, claiming the practice was too time-consuming.

Worst of all, the board has tried to use the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) to enforce board secrecy and justify their actions. That is a cowardly, poorly constructed strategy that demonstrates the board's contempt for the sometimes unwieldy but still essential principles of democracy.

School boards are often the forgotten children of the political system. Trustees are elected by and accountable to citizens, just like MLAs and municipal councillors. However, because there is less public interest and media attention, many school divisions simply abandon transparency and accountability.

In the case of Winnipeg School Division, the resident dissident trustee, Mike Babinsky, has simply not allowed the secretive status quo to persist. Let's face it, if you look in the dictionary under "squeaky wheel," you'll find Babinsky's picture. True to his reputation, Babinsky has become a major conduit of board information.

It was Babinsky who moved the motion to have votes recorded without stipulation and then identified trustees who voted in an unrecorded vote to deny that motion. He has bombarded city media with other details of the school division's inner workings, including the fact the division caters all meetings and that senior administrators who negotiate salaries award themselves the same wage increases they recommend for unionized workers.

Many in the media were initially reluctant to listen to Babinsky, due in large part to the fact he seems to be constantly angling for attention. However, on this issue, he is walking on the side of the angels, and the attention he has generated to date means he is unlikely to stop revealing board secrets.

For now, Allan is watching intently, gathering information and weighing a more direct intervention. This week, trustees are expected to deal with a new iteration of the motion to make the board "more transparent and open to the public." Allan will watch for the result of that vote while looking at devising guidelines for school divisions on transparency and accountability.

The Winnipeg School Division board has clearly lost its way. Like a good principal dealing with a wayward student, it's now up to Allan to ensure these trustees become reacquainted with democracy and the citizens they serve.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2013 A4

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