School board could allow remote delegations
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A trek to the Winnipeg School Division’s Wall Street boardroom may soon become optional for members of the public who want to speak at regular trustee meetings.
Manitoba’s largest school board, which oversees the education of approximately 30,000 K-12 students, is considering options to limit barriers to participation in its biweekly forums.
Earlier this week, rookie trustee Rebecca Chambers put forward a notice of motion to allow delegations to appear before the board remotely, be it via audio link, video link or telephone “where transit, mobility or childcare presents accessibility challenges.”
Chambers, who — alongside six other first-time trustees elected to the board’s nine-member board for the 2022-26 term — has been learning the ropes of her new role in recent weeks.
The Ward 4 representative said she was surprised to learn a virtual attendance option was not already built into the board’s policy on presentations.
“When we create structures for communication, we need to ask: ‘Who can access those structures and who is excluded?’ It’s our responsibility to ensure that communication can freely flow in both directions,” Chambers said.
Students, parents and other people who want to provide feedback to trustees must register for a meeting in advance and arrive at 1577 Wall St. East to take part in a delegation.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, safety measures allowed for flexibility so board members and attendees alike could participate from home. Status quo operations have since resumed.
Chambers indicated the events that unfolded in March 2020 and over the months that followed resulted in more people becoming familiar with alternatives to in-person events, including digital and hybrid models that can be leveraged to improve accessibility.
Among the barriers to participation in traditional school board meetings is the lengthy time required to travel to WSD headquarters in the large division, as well as access to a personal vehicle and Winnipeg Transit, she said.
The division’s southernmost K-12 communities in and around Grant Park are each located about eight kilometres from the central board office. École Waterford Springs School, the furthest WSD school in the opposite direction, is seven kilometres north of it.
One inner-city parent council president, who relies on public transit or carpooling to get to division-wide meetings because she does not have a personal vehicle, touted the new motion to improve accessibility.
“We would love to have a full gymnasium filled with parents (at our school-level meetings), but this is an area that it’s hard for some people to get out to do things,” said Dolora Tanasychuk, a mother at St. John’s High School. “A lot of parents say, ‘I want to come to it, but I don’t have a babysitter.’”
If trustees are serious about wanting to hear from more local residents, including new presenters, Tanasychuk said there is a need to better communicate when meetings take place and that delegations are welcome.
The division would not have to look any further than its annual promotion of public budget feedback sessions every winter, she added.
Cameron Hauseman, an assistant professor of educational administration at the University of Manitoba, suggested the division leverage its social media pages and use both school-level newsletters and posters to get the word out about its regular gatherings.
“I totally support any steps to make public participation more accessible,” Hauseman said, noting Bill 64 — the Tories’ now-defunct plans to abolish elected trustees — and the successful campaigns against it renewed interest in school governance.
Within the last year, the board updated its protocols to allow delegations at every meeting instead of only once a month, according to the chairwoman, who said they are generally able to accommodate five presenters per event, although special meetings can be called if there is significant interest in a particular issue.
Each delegation is allotted 10 minutes, in addition to time to explain themselves if trustees pose questions.
Chairwoman Betty Edel noted community members can contact their ward representative to raise a matter on their behalf if they are unable to participate in a meeting.
Board members are expected to vote on Chambers’ motion in the coming weeks.