BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Mum’s not the word

Columnist Richard Rolke questions the withholding of information by the school board

Loose lips may sink ships, but the Vernon School District may be taking secrecy to the extreme.

With B.C.’s teachers having ratified a new contract, all eyes in the province turned to school boards to see if they would clinch labour peace or reignite a conflict that has impacted classrooms and families for months.

Trying to determine the Vernon district’s position was virtually impossible.

“We have given direction to Mr. (chairperson Bill) Turanski and he will do as we have asked,” said Kelly Smith, board vice-chairperson when asked if the district would vote for the deal.

The problem, apparently, was that local trustees made their decision in-camera. Under provincial legislation, the details of that meeting could not be disclosed because they had not been officially made public yet.

It should be pointed out that Smith did toss the media one bone. “It was a unanimous decision,” she said.

One could perhaps justify the secrecy because negotiations with the teachers were tense at the best of times, and any early indication that the deal may be going down would be   catastrophic.

But for the zipped lips to continue even after B.C.’s school districts had cast ballots is absolutely baffling.

Turanski would not buckle. He did not have permission from his fellow trustees to spill the beans  from an in-camera discussion and the signing of the agreement was an irrelevant point.

Perhaps as a way of working around the rules, Turanski cited a press release from the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association. It stated  that, “Of the 85 per cent of total votes cast, 100 per cent were in favour of the agreement.”

Amen and hallelujah. We finally had an answer — the Vernon School District had voted yes.

Now we shouldn’t necessarily blame Turanski. Rules are rules and legislation insists that anything deemed in-camera (legal, labour and land matters) cannot be disclosed until it has been formally declassified by board members.

But nobody was going to toss the book at Turanski if he broke the code of silence. He wasn’t going to be fired simply because he told the media how he had voted.

The deed was done. Teachers had a contract and there was absolutely nothing to hide.

If anything, most people would have understood Turanski celebrating his board’s role in bringing a divisive labour dispute to an end (even if it’s temporary given that outstanding issues of wages, class size and composition are unresolved).

More importantly, residents of the Vernon School District have a right to know how their elected representatives acted on their behalf. Transparency doesn’t mean just providing information, but doing it in a timely and efficient manner.

Given that the school board is now on summer hiatus and won’t meet until September, official disclosure of the trustees’ voting record is delayed.

Taxpayers shouldn’t have to relay on a wink and innuendo to know what their politicians did. It should be spelled out for the entire world to see.