School board fails democracy test


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Winnipeg school board trustees clearly need to brush up on their civics.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/09/2014 (3110 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg school board trustees clearly need to brush up on their civics.

The school board has repeatedly displayed an obsession with secrecy over transparency. Its penchant for operating behind closed doors and withholding basic information from citizens and journalists is an abuse of power and an assault on the concept of open government.

Education Minister James Allum cannot permit school boards to continue choosing to default to in-camera meetings on matters that deserve public attention. Mr. Allum says he will work with the school boards association for stronger guidelines on the issue, but the province needs to take action soon after the Oct. 22 election to close legislative gaps that allow the abuse to continue.

Trustees must also be required to attend seminars on the importance of transparency and accountability, and the core purpose of provincial privacy legislation and its reach.

Right now, too many trustees just don’t get it.

The latest example of the democracy deficit unfolded recently when Suzanne Hrynyk, chairwoman of the Winnipeg board, accused trustee Mike Babinsky of violating the Freedom of Information Protection of Privacy Act. Mr. Babinsky had allegedly committed the unforgivable sin of telling a reporter the wages of school bus drivers in the division had gone up by $2 an hour.

Actually, there’s no evidence the act was violated. In fact, the office of the Manitoba Ombudsman isn’t sure what Ms. Hrynyk could possibly mean. The question of salaries is not a freedom-of-information issue, although it could be if someone had made a formal request for the information and was denied. The privacy provisions of the act also aren’t relevant in this case.

While other boards are democratically challenged, too, the Winnipeg board has a long history of blocking the release of information and holding important discussions in private.

Board agendas aren’t posted until the day meetings are held, votes held in-camera are not recorded and matters of public interest are routinely moved behind closed doors.

The Public Schools Act permits board committees to meet in-camera, but it is silent on the issues that can be hidden from public view. Municipal in-camera meetings, for example, are generally restricted to legal matters, negotiations with the private sector, personnel matters and a narrow list of other issues.

The Winnipeg school board, however, follows its own procedural bylaw allowing it to move in-camera on “such other matters” it deems fit.

The ombudsman’s office has limited influence on the operation of school boards, which is a gap in the legislation that should be closed. The ombudsman investigates complaints about municipalities going in-camera without a proper basis, but has no authority to probe similar complaints about school boards.

The province has long been aware of the problems with the Winnipeg board and others. Early last year, for example, deputy education minister Gerald Farthing was dispatched to the Turtle River School Division to offer a few tips about the meaning of democracy.

The Turtle River board had routinely refused to give basic budget information to the Free Press.

Former education minister Nancy Allan promised last year to “have a conversation” with the Winnipeg board to persuade it to adopt practices that were more accountable and transparent.

The message hasn’t got through. The province must take stronger action to ensure basic information is not held from the public scrutiny.

School trustees sometimes complain about voter apathy at elections, but it might help if boards were more willing to engage the community on controversial issues. The current system encourages indifference, which might serve trustees, but it doesn’t serve voters or democracy.

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