Boards keep bills under wraps

BY BRENDA BRANSWELL, THE GAZETTEFEBRUARY 14, 2011

It’s information you likely won’t find on any other school board website in Quebec.

Since August 2009, the Lester B. Pearson School Board has been posting the individual monthly expense reports filed by its commissioners.

But if you’re curious about what elected school commissioners elsewhere in Quebec bill for mileage, parking and travel to conferences -expenses that are reimbursed with public funds -you have to contact individual school boards and possibly file an access-to-information request with them.

The expenses of commissioners -or trustees, as they’re called in other provinces -are monitored internally, but most boards don’t report them publicly, said Marcus Tabachnick, chairman of the Pearson board. “We feel it’s a responsibility to report to the public, and we do.”

The decision to post the expenses has prompted questions from trustees in other provinces, Tabachnick said.

“The question was simple – it was, ‘Why do you do that?,’ ” Tabachnick said.

“The answer is equally simple: ‘Well, why wouldn’t you do that?’ ”

The reality is more complicated, because school boards aren’t in lock-step when it comes to openness.

“It varies a lot from one school board to the next,” said Francois Paquet, head of the Federation des comites de parents du Quebec.

The role of the Council of Commissioners, which includes elected commissioners and two parent commissioners, is to set policies and oversee board operations. It discusses and votes on a variety of topics including the awarding of contracts for building repairs, the use of a board’s surplus, whether to close schools, and whether to introduce new programs or initiatives, such as outfitting schools with defibrillators. By law, Quebec school boards must hold public Council of Commissioners’ meetings, and minutes of the proceedings are also public. Monthly meetings are the norm for Montreal Island boards.

Some school boards post the minutes on their websites -some more quickly and fulsomely than others. But what they do of their own volition to shine a light on their operations differs among boards.

The Pearson board’s monthly executive committee meetings are open to the public -although Tabachnick said the public doesn’t show up. Its authority includes approving commissioner expenses and contracts valued at between $50,000 and $100,000, Tabachnick said. The committee produces a report every month to the council and anything else it recommends has to come to the full council for approval, he added.

“I don’t know of any other organization that has their executive committee opened up to the public.”

Executive committee meetings are off-limits to the general public at the English Montreal School Board, which only posts its resolutions online from those gatherings, such as the awarding of a contract last fall to upgrade bathrooms at Marymount Academy.

That’s a step more than the Commission scolaire de Montreal, which says it plans to publish the minutes online but couldn’t say when.

The Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, whose territory includes Laval, posts what appear to be detailed minutes of its executive committee meetings on its website.

Last fall, the board rejected a proposed resolution by Commissioner Steve Mitchell that it also post commissioner expenses. The rationale in the minutes from the meeting is that a board committee felt such requests are rare and if anyone wanted the information, they could ask for it through an access to information request. Commissioners voted instead to mention this procedure on the board’s website.

“I don’t understand why they won’t do it. And I think it was a big mistake,” said Mitchell, who noted that an access-to-information request can “take an awful lot of time.”

Like other boards, Pearson has internal working committees that are open to parent commissioners but not the public.

“There’s no requirement that they be public,” Tabachnick said. They’re a place for commissioners to work and discuss topics that will come eventually to council, he said. But none are decision-making committees, he added.

Standing committee meetings are open to the public at the Toronto District School Board, the largest board in Canada.

Julien Feldman, a commissioner at the English Montreal School Board who has pressed for greater openness, argues that committee meetings shouldn’t be closed. “I think that it’s symbolically necessary to have them open to the public,” Feldman said.

The Pearson board says it was the first in Quebec to produce live webcasts of its council meetings, starting in the fall of 2008. The EMSB has followed suit.

Before the live streaming, the Pearson board used to get an average of five to 10 people at a board meeting, Tabachnick said. Last year, 15,000 viewers looked at its meetings and some other special events. The board added a live blog feature to its webcasts in October, which allows people to type in their queries during question period.

“We can’t force people to come to our meetings. So do we operate under the radar, sure,” Tabachnick said. “Unless there is an issue, that is a hot-button issue for a particular community, people tend not to show up.”

bbranswell@montrealgazette.com

– – –

Next up: Time to go public?

Tomorrow: The province’s political class has been rocked by allegations of scandal, influence peddling and corruption. Is making public the expense records of members of the National Assembly is an idea whose time has come? By Philip Authier

Today’s poll question Should Quebec school boards should be legally required to openly display the publicly-funded expense reports of its commissioners?

Vote online at montrealgazette.com/secretsociety

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

 

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