July 19, 2019

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Editorial

It's time to school trustees on secrecy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/8/2015 (1438 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Almost prophetically, the Winnipeg School Division trustees met in private to discuss how to tackle a consultant’s report on fixing its “shameful” and “dysfunctional” conduct. No information has been posted on the division’s website from Monday’s discussion. Residents and ratepayers, presumably, will have to wait until the board has decided, finally, on an official reply to the scathing report.

The province launched the review last year after persistent accusations the board was too secretive, going behind doors too often on issues for talks that ought to be public. Academic John Wiens, a former superintendent, said he found “little evidence,” however, to back up those claims.

Mr. Wiens gave almost no detail to support his own conclusion. So ratepayers, parents and others are unable to judge for themselves whether the board was as open as possible. There’s no indication in the report what records Mr. Wiens reviewed on the matter — whether he did any sampling of in-camera meetings, what kinds of matters required the closed-door treatment, how much information eventually made its way onto the public record.

Mr. Wiens attended one board meeting. He himself met in camera with the board to explain his job in the review.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/8/2015 (1438 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Almost prophetically, the Winnipeg School Division trustees met in private to discuss how to tackle a consultant’s report on fixing its "shameful" and "dysfunctional" conduct. No information has been posted on the division’s website from Monday’s discussion. Residents and ratepayers, presumably, will have to wait until the board has decided, finally, on an official reply to the scathing report.

The province launched the review last year after persistent accusations the board was too secretive, going behind doors too often on issues for talks that ought to be public. Academic John Wiens, a former superintendent, said he found "little evidence," however, to back up those claims.

Winnipeg School Division Trustee Mark Wasyliw.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg School Division Trustee Mark Wasyliw.

Mr. Wiens gave almost no detail to support his own conclusion. So ratepayers, parents and others are unable to judge for themselves whether the board was as open as possible. There’s no indication in the report what records Mr. Wiens reviewed on the matter — whether he did any sampling of in-camera meetings, what kinds of matters required the closed-door treatment, how much information eventually made its way onto the public record.

Mr. Wiens attended one board meeting. He himself met in camera with the board to explain his job in the review.

He found, in his discussions and formal interviews with trustees, senior administration and board staff, a "shameful, reckless dysfunction" at the board, strained and sometimes hostile relations marked by mistrust, competing personal agendas and a lack of professionalism. Board staff were harassed, bullied and sidelined by trustees and left to fend for themselves amid a prevailing fear of reprisal.

There is lots of work to be done to right the wrongs: keeping good records from here on of the incidents of harassment; making clear that board members work through the superintendent and proper reporting channels to get things done.

Education Minister James Allum last month ordered the school board to implement all of Mr. Wiens’ 22 recommendations. Board chairman Mark Wasyliw says that work has begun. He also said, however, the trustees were thinking of asking Mr. Allum to strike some of the recommendations, particularly a directive that they record all meetings they held as trustees, whom they meet with and for what purposes.

Trustees are justified in balking at that recommendation. City councillors, for example, don’t have to keep such a diary. Lobbyists must officially register themselves and their business at the legislature, but MLAs and cabinet ministers don’t have to log meetings with members of the public.

That’s small potatoes, though, in the scope of Mr. Wiens’ findings. In the spirit of transparency, Mr. Wasyliw and his fellow trustees should be talking openly to ratepayers and parents on how they are going to turn around an oppressive culture the consultant said overshadows the real work of a board, which is to set good education policies for schools.

But Mr. Allum should look at Mr. Wiens’ own work with a more critical eye. Renegade trustee Mike Babinsky was fittingly singled out for his abhorrent conduct in publicly deriding his fellow trustees, their work and the actions of the administration. Mr. Wiens, though, gives little in his report to back up his contention that the in-camera sessions and discussions were appropriate. The public, then, is no further ahead in understanding the nub of the disputes that have infected board business for years.

Mr. Allum has promised to bring school boards, finally, under the watch of the provincial ombudsman. That office, the authority on transparency, should audit when and why school boards have gone in camera. It can help trustees sort through how they can balance the need for openness in the age of privacy laws. That way trustees may better resist what can become a cautious reflex to go behind closed doors.

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