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Nancy Allan, fix this

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Call it a case of delayed outrage, but I cannot believe the Winnipeg School Division doesn’t release agendas and reports before its regular meetings. This is, put simply, an affront to modern principles of open and accountable government. When Winnipeg city hall kicks your butt on the "open and accountable" front, you know you’ve got a problem.

Nick Martin has blogged repeatedly about the WSD’s refusal to release their agendas in advance or to hold any real substantive discussions in public. He’s been a lonely voice too long.

Releasing agendas and reports before a public meeting is the fundamental first step of any elected body. The public has a right to know what their elected officials are up to before they do it. Is your kid’s school losing its library? Are teachers getting laid off? Is the biology curriculum about to include intelligent design? What up with the WSD’s $300-plus million budget?

Nick writes that WSD meetings often take only 20 minutes because most discussion is done behind closed doors. So why have public meetings at all? And if you don’t have open meetings where real issues are debated and real parents have input, what is the purpose of a school division with elected trustees?

Contrast this with city hall. Reporters and the public get agendas at least four days before committee meetings. They include detailed reports from city staff, correspondence from citizens or advocacy groups, recommendations, the history of an issue – a lot of meat. Reporters then write stories about those reports so citizens get a heads up that their community club is on the chopping block or Handi-Transit will start serving Alzheimer’s patients. The public can then come to meetings, raise a stink, write letters to the mayor, whatever. I cannot believe I am touting city hall as a model, but compared to the WSD, it’s a veritable Wikileaks Utopia.

Nick tells me there is no legislation forcing school boards to make their agendas and reports public before meetings. That doesn’t stop Pembina Trails from providing open and accountable agendas, as Nick notes. And it doesn’t stop city hall, either. The city isn’t legal obligated to post the reports online or make them public. The city’s procedure bylaw says only councillors must get agendas and reports 96 hours before meetings. But if city hall quit making the agendas public, there would be outrage about secrecy, closed-door deals, unaccountable politicians and retrograde governance. Why not at the WSD?

Policy Frog, another lonely voice on this issue, proposed some excellent solutions for the WSD several months back.

Here’s a simpler one: Education Minister Nancy Allan should legislate openness so all 496,037 school boards in the province follow the same rules. The Public Schools Act is silent right now on the need to pre-publish agendas and reports, and clearly school boards are using that silence to create more silence of their own.

A couple of months ago, after a meeting with a few access to information advocates, Premier Greg Selinger sent a memo to all his ministers and deputies reminding them of the importance of openness and the need to respond quickly to requests for information. "Transparency in government is a significant factor in building and maintaining public confidence in the work we do together," he wrote.

Well said. Now, enforce it.

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About Mary Agnes Welch

Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first as a general assignment reporter and then covering city hall and the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter.

Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.

Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school, has won several Western Ontario Newspaper Awards and has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.

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