Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/9/2014 (2460 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Education Minister James Allum is readying himself to bring some law and order to the Winnipeg School Division, which despite repeated warnings, has continued to conduct its business behind closed doors.
The big question now is whether Allum can succeed on an issue that confounded his predecessor.
This month, we learned that the WSD board made several important budgetary decisions in camera, including the purchase of new school buses and a $2-an-hour raise for bus drivers.
The decisions were made in secret despite the fact that current rules and regulations governing school division deliberations prohibit these matters from being determined in camera.
This is not the first time the WSD has been caught flouting the principles of accountability and transparency.
In June 2013, we learned WSD trustees were taking an increasing amount of business in camera, refusing to allow the public or media to attend budget debates, and no longer releasing division-wide testing results.
When that story erupted, former Education Minister Nancy Allan said she would personally intervene to stop trustees from conducting business in camera. "I am watching this very closely," Allan said then.
It appears the message Allan sent to the WSD board was not received, because if anything the trustees' brazen disregard for transparency and accountability has only worsened.
And once again, the education minister is getting involved.
Allum said he has dispatched senior officials to meet with WSD trustees to warn them against conducting business in secret. He will also ask the Manitoba School Boards Association to work with the province on stronger transparency and accountability guidelines.
More importantly, Allum said he will personally meet with WSD trustees following the October election to stress the importance of not conducting business behind closed doors.
"We expect school divisions to be open and accountable when it comes to budgetary matters," Allum said in an interview. "The public has a right to know what's going on."
Unfortunately, the public's right to know has proven to be a less-than-convincing argument. If anything, the trustees continue to demonstrate profound ignorance of the importance of keeping the public informed about its deliberations. The recent bus-related issues are a valuable case in point.
The two decisions in question are, at face value, defensible. Board chairwoman Suzanne Hrynyk said the pay raise was designed to help them recruit and retain drivers, who had been leaving for other divisions that paid more. The new buses were part of an annual program to replace some of the division's aging fleet.
Hrynyk, who is leaving the WSD and running for city council in Old Kildonan, has refused to explain why the board made these decisions in secret. Instead, she suggested the board may have to take action against the trustee who did make them public, the ubiquitous Mike Babinsky, for violating the terms of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).
In Hrynyk's world, the fact the decisions were made in secret means no one can discuss them publicly without violating FIPPA. She ignores the fact FIPPA is not designed to give elected officials a carte blanche to conduct its affairs in secret. And that legislative guidelines for all trustees demand that decisions of this kind be conducted in public for all to see.
Hyrnyk's disregard for the principles of transparency and accountability should certainly be taken into consideration by voters thinking about supporting her for city council. She is not only ignorant of the law but also clueless about the importance of keeping the public informed of the transactions and debates of a public body.
In the post-Katz era, those aren't the values we need at city hall.
Can Allum change the culture of secrecy at the WSD when his predecessor Allan appears to have failed? It certainly helps that only three incumbents are running for re-election to the WSD board. That holds the possibility of profound cultural change.
It will also help if Allum follows through on his pledge to not only create new guidelines, but also address trustees directly to stress the importance of transparency and accountability. This is an opportunity to help a mostly new group of trustees start a new era of accountability.
What cannot happen, however, is for the new board to absorb and adopt the culture of secrecy endemic with the old board. The families who live within the WSD boundaries deserve better than a group of elected officials who forget about the voters the moment the election is over.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.