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Experts invited to scrutinize trustees’ governance practices

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

“Learned experts” are being invited to review the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board’s governance practices and recommend changes that can bolster public confidence in how trustees make decisions.

Trustees voted unanimously last week to initiate the arm’s-length study, which they hope will be completed by next February.

Mountain trustee Laura Peddle, who pushed for the review, said she hopes the “outside voices” will examine a broad range of issues, including how meeting agendas are drafted, rules on when sessions are open or closed and a controversial code of conduct.

The latter became a hot topic of public debate last year after then-chair Judith Bishop used it to initiate a $50,000 probe into allegations Peddle broke the code by divulging the topic of an in-camera meeting that resulted in the exclusion of Westmount from a Mountain high school closure review.

Trustees ultimately found the Ward 6 trustee had indeed ran afoul of the code but declined to sanction her – including because a review by a board lawyer concluded the Westmount decision should have been made in open session.

Peddle suggested the review, budgeted at $10,000, be headed by a “credible leader” selected by trustees in April and also study potential changes to trustees’ representation to address disparities in workload and constituencies.

“There is lots of work to be done, and it’s certainly not within the capacity of this board of trustees when we have got other things to debate,” she said. “It would not encroach on the staff in any way, time or effort.”

Dundas trustee Jessica Brennan, chair of the governance subcommittee, said she welcomes the review, which will also be asked to ensure any changes are consistent with the Education Act.

She said trustees have worked on updating their practices in recent years and reviewed their rules on closed meetings last year – one that last June forced them to publicly ratify more than two years of decisions improperly made behind closed doors.

“With the work of the last year particularly, this may be the perfect time to ask someone to come in and audit our procedures, our meeting practices, our rules and regulations, and make suggestions on how we might make some changes,” Brennan said.

While supporting the review, Bishop, who chose not to run again for chair last year in the wake of the Peddle imbroglio, insisted trustees already have among the best governance practices in the province.

Examples of this, she said, include letting the public ask questions for clarification at the end of meetings, inviting public input through the board’s Web site, quarterly posting of trustee expenses and high-school closure reviews that went “far beyond” Ministry of Education expectations on public consultation.

“I would hope that the public, the press, the media and we ourselves would judge our governance in terms what high stakes we are engaging in for our district,” the trustee for wards 1 and 2 said, itemizing a lengthy list of education priorities.

“Improved outcomes for all our students are what we are looking for in our governance structures.”

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