The work of publicly elected officials must be done in public. Thus, it concerns us when we see that the new board procedures being presented at tonight’s board meeting reference informal private meetings of the trustees that are of questionable legality. The first is an informal pre-organizational meeting where they discuss the selection of the Chair and Vice-Chair. (p. 7-94). More serious is the reference to informal work sessions where trustees have “private discussions and deliberations” (p. 7-103) which must remain confidential. Possible legal claims are mentioned as a consequence should a trustee break this confidentiality.
We acknowledge that some board business must be done in private and there is a provision for such meetings in the School Act. They are called in-camera meetings and information presented there must remain confidential. However, there is no provision in the School Act for informal work sessions. If trustees come together to conduct any business, then it is considered a board meeting and “the public is afforded some basic rights when it comes to being able to observe and question their elected trustees in public about their decision making processes” according to a recent Alberta School Boards Association legal newsletter on the subject of private meetings. ARTICS has expressed concern on many occasions about the amount of time the Board spends in-camera (44% last year), and we are also concerned about how much additional private time is being spent in these work sessions.
More worrisome, however, is the removal of three items from the current board procedures that will directly impact how well trustees are able to act as an individual on behalf of their constituents.
The section on board procedures that deals with “Notices of Motion” has been completely removed. Currently, when a trustee wishes to bring forward an idea or policy change, they would give notice of motion two weeks beforehand and it would be put on the agenda. There were ten motions made last year including directing administration to review noon hour supervision fees (which was passed) and having an independent inquiry of the new Education Centre downtown (which was not passed). It is now unclear as to how, or even if, individual trustees will be able to bring forward motions independently for debate at a public meeting.
Also eliminated was the provision for trustee inquiries. This allows individual trustees to ask a question of the administration and receive a public response for issues of concern to them or their constituents. Last year, there were six trustee inquiries on issues such as why the public was not consulted before removing mandatory French and the impact of reporting on character, citizenship and personal development on student report cards.
Another elimination was the ability of an individual trustee to remove items from the consent agenda. The consent agenda contains routine reports, that are nevertheless still very important, such as all financial updates. The reports are considered approved with the agenda unless a trustee gives notice the day before that he or she wishes to question or discuss the report during the meeting, which has happened on many occasions. In June 2010, the trustee remuneration committee recommendation to give the trustees a 5 per cent increase was on the consent agenda, but after being pulled by a trustee, the increase was defeated. Now, this will require the majority of trustees to approve the removal.
The above three eliminations have limited the ability of trustees to act independently on behalf of their constituents. The report summary of changes (p. 7-86) bluntly states that these changes are being recommended “to elevate the work of the Board over that of the individual trustee.” However, electors don’t elect a board, they elect an individual trustee and they expect their trustee to be able to represent them and their concerns.
We invite all members of the public to contact their trustees to provide feedback on these new board procedures. Obviously, three trustees, Chair Cochrane, Trustee King and Trustee Bowen-Eyre believe that these new procedures will improve the CBE’s public board meetings. We hope that you will take the time to let them know your thoughts and consider making a stakeholder report or public inquiry at tonight’s board meeting. It may be your last chance. (For more details on this, read our post on how the new procedures will eliminate public input at board meetings.)