Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pry open school board meetings

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The Winnipeg School Division still doesn't get it and it likely never will unless Education Minister Nancy Allan forces the organization to take remedial training on the meaning of transparency and accountability in government.

The division's board held its regular meeting Monday night where it continued its policy of aggressive secrecy on even the simplest of issues.

Several matters of public interest, such as the practice of senior managers awarding themselves the same percentage wage increase negotiated with union employees, were referred to committees, which meet entirely in private.

The board also rejected once again trustee Mike Babinsky's demand recorded votes be held if only one trustee requests it, instead of a two-thirds majority. Recorded votes are held at city hall on the request of one councillor, but for some reason school trustees seem terrified of being associated with an actual decision, lest they be held accountable.

As Free Press education reporter Nick Martin has documented over the years, the province's largest school division has decided that no news is good news. Only one budget meeting was held in public this year, for example, just two weeks before the deadline, leaving no time for the public to grasp the content and recommend changes.

School division agendas, like city council's, used to be available a few days in advance, but the board decided 10 years ago it didn't like the idea of providing the public advance notice. It doesn't release the agendas until a few hours before the trustees sit down.

The board says it has a right to withhold critical information and hold meetings in private under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The legislation, however, says with a few exceptions, local public bodies can hold deliberations on a wide range of subjects in public without violating the law. The problem is it also allows them to make discretionary judgments, which the board has faithfully used to keep even minor details under wraps.

Such conduct is nothing short of shameful and Ms. Allan should waste no time in correcting the situation.

The NDP, of course, is not a paradigm of transparency itself on some education issues, including its refusal to publicly release provincial exam scores for high schools, but the school board is so hostile to democratic principles, it's on the verge of becoming a star chamber.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 20, 2013 A14

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