Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We elect trustees of secrets

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The Winnipeg School Division has some odd practices for a public body that insists it is interested in public engagement, practices that confound transparency.

Such as:

Agendas posted the morning of the meeting.

Routine in-camera sessions on matters of high public interest.

And now, board votes are not recorded such that there is no documentation of who voted how for trifling matters, such as the approval of the board's $365-million budget.

I repeat: Winnipeg school trustees voted against recording in the minutes how they voted on the annual budget.

Little wonder there is little interest, as indicated by the turnout at board meetings and byelections of trustees.

I've heard the bleatings of trustee Mike Babinsky, a thorn in his colleagues' sides.

But the thing is, when you take the time to scratch around, you can't help sharing his frustration over the lack of scrutiny on some of the decisions the board is taking in absence of the public.

There are the expected confidential matters: notices over student suspensions and leaves of absence. No one's business but the individuals involved.

But distressingly, there is lots there to back up my colleague education reporter Nick Martin's long-standing complaint that the board is taking matters of real public interest "in house" and away from public eyes.

All budget discussions are in secret, and, Babinsky notes, stamped with a warning to all -- including trustees who rail on about transparency and accountability -- that this information is protected by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and it's $50,000 fine to rule-breakers.

There is an argument to be made that early budget discussions need the sanctum of private deliberation as possible cuts and hikes are mulled and mauled over.

But what possibly could be the overriding concern that would justify stamping them all, right up to the draft budget, with the FIPPA mark? Aside from the obvious threat and intimidation effect?

I asked ombudsman Mel Holley about the practice. He said FIPPA permits a public body to keep confidential advice and planning discussions, a recognizably broad provision. Holley agrees, however, that aggressive use of the act defeats public engagement and transparency, even as there is developing a greater imperative for public bodies to open up proceedings.

"We need to know not just what you've decided but the basis upon which you made (the decision)."

Why would elected trustees refuse to record how they vote on matters?

The budget treatment is the best example of how the province's largest school board thwarts a taxpayer's or a parent's right to be informed. A colleague and his wife one year studiously attended all meetings leading up to the budget, only to find they were shut out of any meaningful discussion. They lobbied their trustee hard for additional funding for their special-needs daughter. Full support, they were told.

But the board voted, in private. And, they were told, also in private, that their trustee voted against the funding hike.

It's an education, in itself, to scroll through the board minutes here: www.winnipegsd.ca/BoardofTrustees/minutes-and-summaries.

You'd think with all the interest in Bill 18, the province's latest anti-bullying salvo, that what the trustees thought about schools having to set up gay-straight alliances when asked would be an obvious public matter.

Nope. It sought no public input, and so far has kept its report to the province close to the vest.

How are our Grade 12 students faring on provincial standards tests? Shuttered behind closed doors, last Nov. 5. So, too, was the policy committee's executive summary on reform to mathematics instruction, prompted by one trustee's concern Manitoba students are falling badly behind in national achievement tests.

Similarly, a recent evaluation of the division's multimillion-dollar special-needs program. All hidden.

Why?

The natural explanation is the cynical one -- that the board misuses FIPPA as a club to keep chatty trustees quiet, to sanitize its meetings and minutes, to avoid public scrutiny of meaningful issues and matters.

Chairwoman Rita Hildahl says the board can't release school-by-school results of provincial standards tests because the province insists they be kept confidential. And anyway: "I don't feel that a report card needs to be given on individual schools."

That's convenient. Schools, teachers and trustees escaping accountability. If you don't publicize the math and language-arts results, you don't have to answer hard questions about the parlous state of academic achievement.

Trustees know this, and act accordingly.

Squeeze off the pipeline of information, starve transparency of oxygen, suffocate engagement.

No problem.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2013 A9

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