New board rules put certain discussions behind closed doors

Public school trustees voted in favour of changes to board-meeting procedures — changes that critics argue may keep the public out of the loop in the decision-making process.

The changes — authored by board chair Pat Cochrane and trustees Pamela King and Joy Bowen-Eyre — were approved by a vote of 5–2, with trustees Carol Bazinet and Sheila Taylor opposed.

One notable change brought in changes how trustee inquiries and notices of motion will be brought forward. Individual trustees must now discuss their inquiries and motions during private sessions with agreement by a majority of trustees.

Cochrane said these changes, to take effect April 1, aren’t about individual trustees bringing forward motions, “it’s about the board understanding what are the needs of Calgarians.”

The document indicates the changes will “elevate the work of the board over that of the individual trustee.”

Education watchdog Larry Leach is the president of the Association for Responsive Trusteeship in Calgary Schools, or ARTICS.

He shared his concern of trustees potentially being less able to represent citizens when they are not on “the majority-rule side.”Critics of the CBE trustees’ new board procedures are worried they may lead to secrecy.
Photo by: Shane Flug

“They chose to limit what individuals can do within that governance,” he said. “It’s just not democratic.”

Trustee Taylor said it would be a matter of wait-and-see if future motions from her would be brought forward publicly with the new procedures.

She wrote in her blog on Monday about her worries that the changes would make governance more secretive.

Conflict persists among trustees

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, the rookie trustee Taylor voiced her concerns, seeking changes to the new rules.

Amendments to the policy brought forth by her, including bringing back trustee notices of motion and inquiries, didn’t pass.

 “We shouldn’t be going behind closed doors and deciding which motions are going to come forward.”
— Sheila Taylor, Trustee

A motion to not debate on each of Taylor’s amendments, brought forth by Lynn Ferguson, was passed in order to limit debate time. However, during the meetings debate time, things intensified, particularly between Taylor and King.

“I’m not trying to be some sort of a contrarian,” said Taylor, who clarified she didn’t think every change was negative.

Taylor said there shouldn’t be informal meetings in private, which have also increased from two hours per week to more than three.

“We’re publicly elected to do business in front of the public,” she said.

Trustee King said the changes are consistent with the regulations of the School Act and won’t foster “secret meetings, super secret meetings or even super-duper-secret meetings.”

She countered Taylor’s proposed amendments as “disguised to address a concern” that would “continue wasting valuable time and resources that should be spent on our students and their learning.”

“It’s also disconcerting that these amendments could be construed as playing on the fears of parents and Calgarians.”Trustee Sheila Taylor speaks to the media after a vote to pass new board procedures at a vote of 5-2. Taylor is concerned that trustees should not be spending more time meeting behind closed doors.
Photo by: Shane Flug

King went on to say that she would “no longer be subjected to bullying and grandstanding that I’ve experienced this past year by people who are content with distorting the facts of what this board is striving to do for our students.”

Afterward, Taylor said, “We shouldn’t be going behind closed doors and deciding which motions are going to come forward.”

Other changes

• Trustees will now have the chance to review documents earlier, but they will still be only be available to the public the day before a meeting. Taylor put an amendment forth to make documents publicly available four days in advance of a meeting but that was defeated 5-2.

• Meetings will be videotaped and put on the Internet for a two-year period. ARTICS has been videotaping the meetings for its own site for about a year.

• Meetings will now begin at 3 p.m., with intention of a shorter workday for staff and the board.

Cochrane acknowledged that changing public meeting times to 3 p.m. could exclude some people from attending but added that the time may work for others.

“As you can see, people may stay for an hour or so and then they tend to drift off,” she said. “And so this may encourage people to stay for a little bit longer if we start earlier in the day.”

• Public comment sessions will be moved to 5 p.m. with speaker time set to a three-minute maximum, but may be extended with a majority trustee vote.

• There will be chance to informally meet trustees and the superintendent half an hour before a meeting.

sflug@cjournal.ca