Transparency & Accountability
Building Trust in Public Institutions
Imagine going to a school board meeting and being told your questions wouldn't be answered. Imagine having a trustee volunteer to answer and being told by the Chair they were not allowed to answer the question. Imagine being told to write a letter to get it on the agenda and it still wasn't added to the agenda. It was an oversight. This has happened to me.
School board trustees do not operate school divisions. It is not their role. In SJASD, the role of the people entrusted with roughly $123, 000, 000 of public funds is to set policy. The Superintendent's department carries out that policy with the help of carpenters, electricians, painters, secretaries, educational assistants, teachers, principals, bus drivers, lunch room supervisors and volunteers.
Trustees are people engaged in public service. They often have full time jobs and are not always aware of the complexities of an issue or how the school system works. Sometimes, while setting policy, they ask the Superintendent's department for research or advice. The Superintendent's department are the educational leaders of a school division. They have the knowledge to answer trustee questions or at least know where to go and find the answers.
Sometimes, when a trustee doesn't know what they don't know, they are not able to ask pertinent questions. This creates the possibility of the cart leading the horse so to speak. The Superintendent's department may end up providing suggestions for trustees to provide a rubber stamp.
It is the trustees who are responsible to the citizenry.
Trustees are elected as individuals. Boards operate on a consensus model as corporate entities. I love the consensus model. It's the model The Northwest Territories and Nunavut use. There are no political parties.
Still, there needs to be much, much more transparency in how school boards come to their decisions. If a citizen is going to vote for a trustee candidate, that candidate (incumbent or otherwise) should have something to say.
Trustees are trained to not speak out on any issue. The Chair of the Board represents the Board to the media. That alone would be fine if there were published records kept of how each trustee votes. There aren't.
Some will say there is no need to record a vote if 100% consensus is reached. Some say a trustee can request their own vote to be recorded. This is not transparent enough. This does not improve trust in the democratic process.
Some will say they are bound by the Robert's Rules of Order. Robert's is a good way to keep a meeting on track and have agenda items addressed. However, it is not an excuse to not record and publish votes. A school board can work with modified Robert's Rules of Order.
Some will say they are bound by the bylaws of the corporation. Who wrote the bylaws? Who can change the bylaws? Trustees cannot claim to be bound by rules they accepted or wrote themselves.
In SJASD, votes are only recorded if at least two trustees make a request. If one trustee makes the request, only a dissenting vote will be recorded. This is not transparent enough.
The default of any school board should be towards increased transparency. Any citizen should be able to go to a school board website and look at the voting record of any trustee for any motion. The City of Winnipeg does it. The Parliament of Canada does it. I am advocating for the SJASD to do it. It places an unfair burden on citizens to sift through piles of meeting minutes to determine a trustee's voting record.
In-camera meetings are necessary and good. If there is a sensitive personnel concern to discuss, the public does not have the right to know. There may be other delicate agenda items needing to be addressed in a careful and tactful manner. In-camera meetings also allow for open, honest and frank discussions about matters at hand. They lessen anxiety about a misunderstanding heard during a brain storming session being broadcast on social media as fact.
Once a decision has been made during an in-camera meeting, the trustees have a duty to come out of camera and record the vote publicly for the record. Of course, as noted above, there are exceptional circumstances & personnel issues that allow for deviation from the rule. Again, the default should be more transparency, not less.
Citizenship is one of six global competencies of Deep Learning. The others are collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, character and communication. The Board of Trustees should be modeling these at all times.