Mike Babinsky would try the patience of a saint. Dale Carnegie would probably tell Babinsky not even to bother buying the book. Will Rogers would have shaken his head and walked away.
There was Babinsky Monday night, 18 years and counting over delighting in being a lone-wolf maverick, suddenly trying to be Captain Co-operation.
Work with me here, colleagues, he told the Winnipeg School Division board, to end secrecy and open up public business to the public.
Why couldn’t it have been any of the other eight trustees, the ones who haven’t spent their time on the school board carefully honing a reputation of not getting along with anyone and of being the defiant and proud outsider?
Babinsky wears it as a badge of honour that he’s never been elected to chair one of the major board committees.
Just why none of those other eight trustees is the public champion of open government, we’ll leave for another day. Monday night it was Babinsky championing the cause, and so worthy a goal couldn’t have been in worse hands.
Typical Babinsky, he was asking for co-operation Monday night while throwing it in his colleagues’ faces yet again. And again.
One of the issues he was pushing Monday evening was the catered meals trustees eat when they come straight from work to a (closed) committee meeting followed by a (partially open) board meeting. Babinsky says that the food has never passed his lips, he wants to put an end to the practice, and there he was Monday evening, asking for co-operation while gloatingly and smugly displaying a plate of sandwiches in bread, buns, and wraps. Alas, the only camera in the room belonged to the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Let’s hope that those sandwiches, having sat out for 90 minutes or so, weren’t among the leftovers which Babinsky later delivered to the Sally Ann shelter. But I digress.
The issue of catered meals has been bounced to the board’s finance committee, which, like all committees, meets behind closed doors.
Did I mention that the board has censured Babinsky several times over the years? The first time, to the best of my recollection, was when he identified a Grade 3 girl who had been sexually assaulted by a man who’d been lurking inside her school after sneaking in during recess. Babinsky held a news conference with the girls’ parents, and named them, thereby identifying the girl.
The most recent was when he gave me the short list of candidates to be the new chief superintendent; Babinsky was unhappy with the absence of a particular candidate. His colleagues, not to mention the people on the short list, weren’t impressed.
Anyway, back to Monday night.
Babinsky wanted the board to suspend the rules and have three readings of a bylaw that would overturn a previous bizarre decision on recorded votes that would require a majority to vote in favour of having individual yeas and nays recorded for the historical record. And recorded for personal accountability come election time. Babinsky wanted a recorded vote to be taken automatically if anyone requested it, which had been standard practice until recently, and is standard practice everywhere else democracy reigns.
Suspension of the rules to overturn previous decisions within a certain time period requires a unanimous vote — otherwise, someone who lost a vote would be resurrecting an issue every meeting. To everyone’s enormous surprise, Babinsky failed to get unanimity.
So how had Babinsky been warming up to his colleagues Monday evening leading up to that particular vote? By asking for recorded votes on all kinds of stuff, then pulling out his watch and timing and reporting how long — or, as he argued, how little time — it takes to conduct a recorded vote. He was kind of belligerent about it, too.
Subsequently, Babinsky raised another motion. He alleged that trustee Kristine Barr was incorrect and misleading in her statements to FP reporter Randy Turner about how many recorded votes are taken and how much time they eat up. Babinsky demanded a retraction or correction from WSD. No shock — he lost.
Babinsky’s ticking everyone off aside, this is a serious issue. It takes only a few seconds to ask each trustee to say yes or no, to be forever entrenched in history, and to be accountable for personal decisions.
On and on it went.
For more than a decade WSD has been paying its senior managers the same percentage salary increase as teachers bargain, and nary a peep out of Babinsky. Suddenly, he sees the potential for conflict of interest, since a few senior managers are involved in bargaining, though trustees eventually vote on tentative agreements. He wants the two processes separated, and, indeed, the finance committee is looking at it, at what the alternatives might be, and getting legal advice on just what kind of conflict, if any, would be involved in the current system.
Trustees were falling over each other to defend the integrity of staff — trustee Mark Wasyliw, a lawyer, obviously spotted the minefield through which Babinsky was stomping.
Babinsky also raised the issue of agendas, such as they are. How come trustees get their agendas Thursday for Monday meetings, yet the public can’t see them until Monday morning on-line, he asked.
Good question, and one I’ve been raising for years. Calling what is posted on-line Monday mornings an agenda is laughable, it’s pretty much just a list of which committees will be reporting, along with the wording of motions, with not a hint of the content of those committee reports.
Back in the 1990s, the board used to put out a real package, with supporting reports and details from each committee, along with public correspondence about written requests on policy issues. The public and media could subscribe, and could pick up the packages Friday mornings. The trustees got upset over stories appearing in the FP over the weekend and over the public getting interested in upcoming business, and put a stop to the practice.
Correspondence disappeared from both the agendas and official minutes about the same time. There were two publicly-prominent fathers who opposed the division’s anti-homophobia education plans so vehemently that they threatened to put their children in private schools if the division didn’t drop the whole notion of anti-homophobia. Their letters were printed on the agenda, and when I called the dads to ask some questions, they totally freaked at discovering that what they’d written was public knowledge. And shortly thereafter, the division stopped printing correspondence.
Look, the levels of secrecy within Winnipeg School Division are deplorable. I stopped going to board meetings several years ago because there was no point of sitting through 15 or 20 minutes of rubber-stamping routine business and housekeeping that weren’t worth space in the paper.
The board conducts all its committee meetings behind closed doors. The important matters before the full board go in camera.
WSD has a $365 million budget and educates one out of every six public school students in Manitoba. There is one public forum on the budget, held at the end of February, two weeks before the deadline, and after months of closed-door discussions.
The finance committee — which, I will again point out, does not meet in public — is looking into making budget meetings more accessible, but it started thr process by getting briefed about the legal justifications for doing personnel and other budget aspects secretly. Yes, I understand why trustees decide about an a individual employee behind closed doors; I don’t understand why they can justify deciding in secret how many thousands of teachers will be on the payroll.
There are other ongoing issues being dealt with behind closed doors, issues in which the public has interest. There’s the development of a policy on giving politicians access to students, the kerfuffle that hit the fan when Justin Trudeau’s people invited the media into Sisler High School to cover his appearance there, without running it by the single most powerful authority figure in the public school system, Sisler principal George Heshka.
And there’s the ad hoc committee established to take another run at the idea first raised in 2001 by community activists who want the current ward system — three wards of three trustees each, each bigger than most federal ridings and pretty near all provincial ridings in the city — replaced by nine wards of one trustee apiece. Trustee Suzanne Hrynyk says the ad hoc committee will meet in the fall, but isn’t yet sure if it will hold public hearings.
It’s just too bad that it has to be Babinsky who’s the one championing the openness cause — the rest of the board can’t see beyond the personality to the principles.
Maybe one of the newer and promising trustees who play well with others will step up — like, say, for instance, Mark Wasyliw or Darlyne Bautista. No pressure, eh, just saying...