Newly elected School Trustees in British Columbia are told in BC School Trustees Association seminars and by Trustee colleagues -some seemingly in lifetime positions – that ‘The Board speaks with one voice”, and it’s clear that what is meant is “Don’t express a dissenting opinion in public; don’t rock this boat”. I’ve been told on occasion to resign if I don’t agree with the majority position. What happened to “changing the system from within”? And resigning, besides being a betrayal of the voters who elected me, and my own principles, would bring on a costly by-election.
And then there are the “no voice” secret In Camera meetings, held before almost every public meeting. (This blog dedicates a widget to tracking the hours spent in in camera and public meetings.)
There are valid reasons for in camera meetings and for not reporting publicly on details of some land-related issues, personal details protected by privacy legislation and legal information , the well-known trio “land, legal and personnel”. However, given the lax provisions for restricting what may be discussed in these meetings at the School Board level of civic governance (some have called this the lowest rung of civic governance) , the opportunity for abuse is apparent. And any Trustee who lets you know about it is in line for discipline by the majority.
But what happened last week is all over the local corner of the Twitterverse, so it’s all out there: Trustee Edith Loring-Kuhanga sent in a motion following expectations in Bylaw 9250.2, Notices of Motion for the public agenda on June 10, scheduled as a combnation of Education Policy and Operations Policy and Planning Standing Committees. The motion was sent to the Operations Policy and Planning Committee for that agenda by some Board office process I’m not privy to.
Trustee Loring-Kuhanga reports that she was told by the OPPS chair, Elaine Leonard, and the Board Chair Peg Orcherton, that the motion would not be discussed in public but would be moved by them to the In Camera agenda, over Loring-Kuhagna’s objections. This is clearly abuse of power by the Chair; the Chair can be removed for abuse of power of the position according to Robert’s Rules, but that needs a majority vote, so let’s move on.
- The motion: Loring-Kuhanga: That the Board of Education of School District 61 (Greater Victoria) adopt the “Whole School Suicide Prevention Model” for all middle and secondary schools and provide annual presentations to students and staff in order to increase an awareness, education and prevention of suicide amongst our youth.
- On Twitter after hearing about the refusal to place the motion on the public agenda:DianeMcN: BC Youth suicide: why do youth consider suicide?Not bcse schl bds publicly consider prevention/education http://goo.gl/68ddE #sd61 #bced
- Need2 BC Youth Suicide statistics state that suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 30 in BC. : Across Canada,rates of suicide among Aboriginal youth are estimated to be five to six times higher than among non-aboriginal youth.
Trustees can be secretly disciplined by majority vote in In Camera meetings; the substance of the discipline may or may not become public knowledge (reporting out to the public requires a majority vote). Trustees can be penalized by their peers in various ways ranging from verbal “censure”, through being barred from parts of meetings when deliberation and vote on specific topics occurs, barred from entire meetings for varying lengths of time, to removal from office. Speaking up about abuse of power can have its costs.
Speaking up had a cost for School District 61 Trustee Nohr, who was publicly reprimanded in a motion by Trustee Bev Horsman (who has been on this Board for 21 years),vigorously supported by Peg Orcherton, for publicizing concerns about the functioning of the local parents’ “official” organization, VCPAC, this statement appeared in a Times-Colonist editorial, “School Board Muzzles Debate: “A school trustee is elected to take concerns from the public to the board, not merely to reflect the opinions of the board to the public.”
Trustees may be publicly censured by their Board. The Horsman motion above – which Horsman withdrew after debate – was, in effect, censure, for doing what is expected of an elected official.
- February 2012: The Langley board of education has censured Trustee Alison McVeigh for releasing confidential information from an in-camera meeting of the board of trustees.“At an in-camera meeting on Tuesday (Jan .31), trustees voted to discipline McVeigh who spoke out after superintendent Cheryle Beaumont was fired in January.In a terse press release issued on Jan. 17, the board announced that Beaumont was leaving the district ” to pursue other ventures.” McVeigh’s in-camera transgression was to reveal that in a 5-2 vote, Beaumont was actually sacked….Responding to the censure, McVeigh said that she was not surprised and that it is her intention to continue to focus on Langley students and move on. Board chairman Wendy Johnson was asked how the board arrived at its decision to censure McVeigh. “I can’t comment,” she said. “(If I do) I’m doing what she did.”
- January 2012: The Vancouver School Board (VSB) voted Jan 16 to censure two trustees for comments they made “publicly misrepresenting the board’s anti-homophobia policy.“Board chair Patti Bacchus told Xtra the censure is a symbolic condemnation of the actions of Non-Partisan Association trustees Sophia Woo and Ken Denike. [They are still on the VSB Board .]
- February 2010: Nova Scotia: in February 2010, the Nova Scotia legislature became the first province in Canada to introduce legislation giving school boards the power to discipline individual trustees.Nova Scotia school boards may censure individual trustees including suspending a trustee for one to three months or recommending the minister remove that individual trustee.
- Peace River South School District Policy: “Confidential information such as property, personnel, labour related matters and budget matters, discussed during in-camera meetings of the Board shall not be published or divulged by any Trustee to members of the public or media and if such information is so published or divulged by any Trustee, the Board may express its condemnation of the actions of the Trustee through a vote of censure by resolution of the Board passed by an affirmative vote of at least 2/3 of all its members. Individual Trustees who violate confidentiality may be liable for any legal costs and damages that may result from the breach of confidentiality.
(Why Peace River South? Googling SD61 bc gives results on “censor”, but nothing on “censure”.)
An interesting example of a Trustee divulging In Camera votes took place in 2009 in Greater Victoria School District 61 , when Trustee Orcherton courageously revealed what had taken place In Camera meetings.
The secret plans and decisions made In Camera to get rid of outspoken progressive Trustee Catherine Alpha backfired on the previous Board, and Deborah Nohr’s FOIPPA request revealed that this debacle cost that Board approximately $75,000 of taxpayer money. Trustees of the Board at that time (2009) were Alpha, Ferris, Holland, Horsman, Leonard, McEvoy, Orcherton, Pitre, Young. (Holland, Pitre and Young were not re-elected in the 2011 municipal election. Pitre has since been hired back as a short-term contracted member of the management team. Trustees don’t participate in such hiring; it’s a responsibility of senior management.) George Ambeault, the Secretary-Treasurer at the time (who recently resigned to take a high level position with ERAC ) whose legislated responsibility it was to let any Trustee know if there was any problem with their paperwork, failed to do that and went along with the conspiracy. (Alpha had filed correct information on the wrong piece of paper.) After a messy and costly court battle, Alpha was reinstated by the British Columbia Court, District 61 to pay costs.
School District 61 Section 72 reports – the BC School Act-requires very general reports of what happened in In Camera meetings in its Section 72 – do not reveal In Camera votes to the public. So, Orcherton’s revelations below are obviously a breach of in camera confidence by letting the public know what happened in an In Camera meeting. Orcherton’s media statements wouldn’t have been necessary if the vote had been or would be a matter of public record. Letting the public know what the vote was could only be done by majority vote and its obvious that, if a motion was made, it was defeated. Kudos to Orcherton for letting the public in on the secret.
- Trustees fumbled byelection: Times Colonist,June 23, 2009: “Catherine Alpha’s reinstatement as a Greater Victoria school trustee is welcome. Her failure to use the proper forms to declare $350 in campaign expenses was no reason to overturn the voters’ decision and bar her from office. Alpha bears responsibility for not meeting the letter of the Local Government Act requirements.But the school district and her fellow trustees should be embarrassed by their handling of this case. Alpha was elected to her first term last November. Her campaign was run through the Victoria Public Education Coalition, which supported three candidates. (The other two were unsuccessful.) All the details of her campaign finances were reported, as required, to the district, as part of the coalition filing. She should have reported individually. The trustees’ response was to declare her seat vacant and call a byelection in which she would be barred from running. But the trustees and the district had options. Staff could have notified her of the problem before the deadline. Other local governments have passed resolutions allowing councillors to continue sitting despite filing problems.Or at the least it could have exercised the option, available under the Local Government Act, of allowing Alpha to remain on the board pending a hearing in B.C. Supreme Court.It didn’t. Instead, trustees ousted her and called a hasty, disruptive byelection, scheduled for Saturday. It is now cancelled, after significant preparation and campaigns by candidates.Supreme Court Justice Robert Metzger found Alpha had addressed the filing error within 24 hours of learning of the problem and acted in good faith. This entire affair was unnecessary. Common sense, an understanding of the available options and respect for the choice made by voters should have allowed the board to deal with this in a much a different way. We hope a lesson has been learned.
On June 25, 2009, in the online parent forum Kids In Victoria, Dead Tired Dad posted Orcherton’s public letter to the Times Colonist in reply to the editorial above. The letter was also posted in the Vancouver Sun by Janet Steffenhagen.
- Not all trustees fumbled Alpha issue: Times Colonist June 25, 2009: Re: “Trustees fumbled byelection,” June 23 : “Your editorial mainly hit the mark on the mess leading up to the court decision in which Justice Robert Metzger rightfully reinstated trustee Catherine Alpha to the Greater Victoria Board of Education. However, I wish to clarify the implication that all of the trustees ousted her and called for a hasty, disruptive (and unnecessarily expensive) byelection.I and two other trustees, Bev Horsman and John Young, voiced our dissent early and often on the hastiness of calling this byelection.I asked for two meetings with the board to discuss what had occurred, how the disclosure issue had taken so long to be uncovered and brought to the board’s attention and why Alpha was not provided the opportunity to correct any deficiencies.I prepared a lengthy report for the board that raised two serious issues: The district’s failure to have proper election reporting processes in place; and actions taken by some board members without the authority of the board (like the placing of a byelection advertisement well before the board had decided on a byelection).I provided a similar report to members of the media after a board meeting on May 11. That report outlined my concerns and four recommended resolutions. Three of these resolutions were defeated and one, to immediately draft specific directions for the administration to follow for future elections, was tabled by the majority on the board.This majority has consistently turned a deaf ear to the board’s and the administration’s responsibility with respect to the issue of Alpha. Further, the majority of this board took a neutral position with respect to her petition to the Supreme Court, when there was the opportunity to support her.Fortunately justice and common sense prevailed with Metzger’s decision. While all of us on the board have to accept the will of the majority, it is important for the public to know which trustees made these decisions that the Times Colonist characterized as “fumbling.” They are trustees Tom Ferris, Jim Holland, Elaine Leonard, Michael McEvoy and Dave Pitre.” ~ Peg Orcherton, Trustee, Greater Victoria school board
It would be interesting to know if Orcherton were sanctioned in any way for reporting publicly on in camera events. But that would be a secret.
So what are the legitimate reasons for holding in camera meetings?
The Alberta School Trustees site provides an informative and public newsletter on Board related issues. (BC School Trustees Association, not so much – although the BCSTA does feel it necessary to provide tips for trustees on how to read. Alberta apparently doesn’t find this necessary. )
- “The content of the discussion is central to making the assessment. Trustees should not meet privately to discuss issues in a manner that materially advances the issues towards a board’s final decision – because this deprives the public of the opportunity to observe the material part of the board’s decision-making process. ….Specifically:
- While to the greatest extent possible school board discussions should be conducted in public, there are specific instances when the public interest is best served by private discussion in in camera sessions. School boards may hold regularly scheduled in camera meetings to deal with land, labour, legal and other matters typically considered to be in the public interest to be discussed in private.”
The Community Charter, which governs process for BC municipalities, stipulates that In Camera discussion take place by public vote made in a public meeting. Not so the BC and Alberta School Acts. There’s simply a secret meeting before the public meeting, with a BC School Act-required “Section 72 report” that is so general as to be meaningless.
- “The overarching theme: school boards should uphold the principle of transparency but they may have in camera meetings to talk about issues that need to be discussed behind closed doors. This means carefully setting an agenda that doesn’t stray into items that should be discussed in public.
- …School boards should also bear in mind that they will face public scrutiny with regards to their use of in camera meetings. Recently a group of citizens known as the Association for Responsive Trusteeship in Calgary Schools started tracking and posting the time the Calgary Board of Education – Canada’s second largest school board – spends in camera versus in public meetings on its website….”
- “Regular business meetings are open to the public, while in camera meetings are reserved for especially sensitive or confidential matters and are open to board members and senior administrators only. Your district will have its own schedule and protocols for board meetings.
- Full board meetings must be held in public unless the board decides that it is in the public’s interest to hold a private session (closed or in-camera meeting).However, it is important not to abuse this power. Potential controversy or embarrassment to the board is not usually sufficient reasons for an in-camera meeting.
- Board procedures specify what matters are discussed in camera and these are generally consistent with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
- There should be a firm understanding that items referred for consideration in private session are done so for appropriate reasons, and that resulting recommendations or decisions will be brought back to public session whenever possible. Items reserved for private session meetings include personal matters regarding staff or students, union negotiations and the sale or purchase of property. …Closed sessions may involve taking votes or just committee–of–the–whole discussions.”
A School District 61 Trustee is on staff in the Office of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner.
This requirement for confidentiality is extended to anything discussed “In Camera” The potential for abuse is obvious. All that has to happen is that a Chair deems it “in the public interest” to keep anything at all off that public agenda that he or she does not want discussed in public and unilaterally move it to the In Camera agenda and suddenly, Trustees are forbidden to talk about it. At all. To anyone. To you, the public. Given the need for a majority vote to report out, it could well be as if the issue doesn’t exist and discussion never happened.
- 72 (3)A board must prepare a record containing a general statement as to the nature of the matters discussed and the general nature of the decisions reached at a meeting from which persons other than trustees or officers of the board, or both, were excluded, and the record must be open for inspection at all reasonable times by any person, who may make copies and extracts on payment of a fee set by the board.
The City of Victoria, for example, functions according to the Community Charter. Minutes note the move into in camera via public voteCommunity Charter Requirements before meeting is closed.
- Section 92 Community Charter: “Before holding a meeting or part of a meeting that is to be closed to the public, a council must state, by resolution passed in a public meeting,(a)the fact that the meeting or part is to be closed, and(b) the basis under the applicable subsection of section 90 on which the meeting or part is to be closed”…(3) The minutes of a meeting or part of a meeting that is closed to the public must record the names of all persons in attendance.
School District 61 Bylaw 9360.1 In Camera Meetings
“1.In camera items that may be discussed confidentially include legal,
property, personnel and privacy matters as defined by provincial legislation.
2.The Chair of the Board or Stand ng Committee may call an In Camera meeting to occur prior to a regularly scheduled Board or Standing Committee meeting.
3.The Chair of the Board , the Secretary Treasurer or any three Trustees may call a special In Camera meeting of the Board , in addition to the regularly scheduled in camera meetings
4.In the event that the Chair of the Board or Standing Committee determines that no in camera meeting is required, Trustees will be advised .
5.When an in camera meeting is called, the Chair of the Board or Standing Committee shall prepare an agenda which shall follow the form at as that or the meetings of the Board in general session.
6.Agendas w ill be circulated in advance of a called meeting
7.Any matter to be brought to the public from an in camera meeting will be done upon an approved motion of the Board .”
Now you know why you don’t know. Finding out what you don’t know is considerably more difficult, but here’s a start: How Do I Make a Formal Request
Monday June 17, 2013 7 pm: Board Meeting Tolmie Building
Friday June 21, 2013: Heliset Hale marathon end at Tsawout