It's time for the School Board to rethink its tendency to conduct business behind closed doors and hide their process from constituents who might otherwise bring desperately-needed community perspective.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 15, 2012
I argued yesterday that the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board's (HWDSB) plan to sell the Board of Education building at 150 Main Street West and move to a new facility on the Crestwood school site is a bad decision based on a flawed process. So far, I have received responses from three HWDSB Trustees.
The first came from Ward 6 Trustee Laura Peddle, who wrote to say she opposed the Crestwood plan and will ask the Board in March to rescind the decision and "then properly, transparently reconsider the criteria applied."
The second came from Ward 1/2 Trustee Judish Bishop, who wrote that Jackson Square was taken out of consideration because a lease agreement would be more expensive over the long term and that the Ministry of Education would see it as "too risky".
Bishop added that the Board had already decided in 2007 that a renovated and expanded Education Centre at 150 Main Street West would cost too much - $55 million. I asked if there is a detailed cost breakdown for this option and await a response.
She also told me to expect a response from Board Chair and Ward 3 Trustee Tim Simmons. I expected it to be a defence of the Board's decision making process and conclusion, and I wasn't disappointed.
Therein lies the crux of the problem. Against widespread and steadily building public disapproval of their Crestwood plan, the Board's reaction has been to double down on the very process the public is complaining about.
The Board makes too many decisions behind closed doors at in camera sessions and even at private pre-meetings, and it releases its reports and planning documents only reluctantly and after weeks or months of delays.
How ironic that Peddle was the Trustee charged last March with violating the Board's code of conduct for allegedly disclosing statements made behind closed doors, criticizing other Trustees and undermining the board's authority when she protested the in camera decision to exclude Westmount and Saltfleet schools from the South ARC review.
A legal report on the propriety of the decision was delivered to Trustees in May. It concluded that the decision to exclude the schools was acceptable under the Board's authority, but that it was inappropriate to have made the decision in camera.
Meanwhile, the investigation continued against Peddle for disclosing the contents of that in camera meeting after it was determined that the meeting should have been public in the first place.
That was just one of the many opportunities the Board has had in the past year to stop and reconsider their approach.
At a May 30 committee of the whole, the Trustees voted unanimously (Peddle was not present) to amend the code of conduct so that Trustees must put the corporate interests of the Board ahead of their constituents and must "represent the board and its officers in a positive light" in public communications.
After the predictable eruption of public outrage - legal scholars argued that it would violate the Charter right to free speech - several Trustees backed off in June and the Board referred the policy back for more consideration before final approval.
It comes as no surprise that the governance committee charged with updating the Board's code of conduct regularly met in camera and withheld the minutes from many of its meetings.
When the legal report against Peddle was finally released, it found Peddle guilty of one of the three charges - disclosing information from an in camera meeting - but argued against any sanctions. The Trustees voted to let the matter rest.
Of course, the price tag for the 172 page report was redacted and the Board refused to say how much it paid the law firm that prepared it. Finally, in mid-December, the Board acknowledged that it cost $39,000, plus thousands more in legal opinions.
We can add this to the $42,000 the Board paid for the earlier report on the decision to exclude Westmount and Saltfleet from the South ARC, a price tag the Board also initially tried to suppress.
Meanwhile, the South ARC has been a procedural mess, exactly as Peddle argued. The volunteer committee overseeing the process actually resigned en masse last March in protest over the Board decision to exclude Westmount and Saltfleet from the process.
Like so many Board decisions that feel pre-determined, the fix appears to be in for Sherwood School. The Board recently decided to allow students living inside the Sherwood catchment area to attend Saltfleet instead, even though the ARC is ongoing, Saltfleet is already over capacity, and Sherwood's low enrollment numbers make it a target for closure.
(A whole separate issue is the North ARC recommendation to close Delta, Parkview and Sir John A. MacDonald to replace them with a new
warehouse consolidated school. Never mind the evidence that packing large numbers of students into big regional schools is harmful for academic performance and leads to lower high school completion rates and higher rates of disciplinary issues.)
Board Chair Judith Bishop stepped down last November from that role, near the end of what must have been a difficult, stressful and tumultuous year.
The Trustees decided on a replacement Chair ... at yet another private meeting that took place prior to the public meeting in which the decision was formalized.
One of the first things new chair Tim Simmons announced was that the Board's practice of having private pre-meetings would continue. A couple of weeks later, after another predictable outpouring of public outrage, the Board again backpedaled and announced the private pre-meetings would stop.
The best thing the other Trustees could do at this point is acknowledge that Peddle was right all along to fight against the Board's self-destructive inclination to secrecy.
Now is the time for the Board to rethink its tendency to conduct public business behind closed doors and hide their process from constituents who might otherwise bring desperately-needed community perspective to their deliberations.