The Hamilton Public School Board will continue to hold online meetings until at least the end of November – a move two former presidents have criticized as putting convenience for administrators and staff ahead of access and accountability.
Board Chair Dawn Danko said the move had nothing to do with COVID-19, which prompted the shift to online meetings, but instead reflects a goal of lowering barriers to participation for directors. , staff and the public.
She said directors and staff — but not the public or the media — will be able to attend board meetings in person if they wish, but all committee meetings will be held entirely online.
Anyone wishing to watch the proceedings will be able to do so via MS Teams and the board will continue to post videos of board and committee meetings the following day, she said, citing improved online participation, including public, as a benefit.
“It lowers the barriers to participation for administrators, for staff,” Danko said, adding that she personally prefers to meet in person despite the benefits of doing it online.
“For some people, whether they have other work or family commitments, e-participation makes the most sense right now,” she said.
“I’m glad I don’t have to drive to the education center and I’m only 10 minutes away, and that’s for three meetings this week.”
Danko said the board supports a bid by the Ontario Public School Boards Association for the province to extend an emergency regulation allowing online meetings during the pandemic.
The Education Act already allows school trustees to participate electronically, but the board chair and director must attend board meetings in person.
But it also states that council and committee meetings “shall be open to the public and that no one shall be excluded from a meeting open to the public except for inappropriate conduct”.
Exceptions include deliberations on legal matters, personnel, property, and union negotiations.
Former council chairman Todd White, who is running for trustee in Wards 5 and 10 in the October municipal elections, said the council was choosing convenience over liability.
He said online meetings exclude those who cannot participate electronically and do not allow the public or the media to talk to administrators or staff afterwards, or people to show their displeasure with a decision in appearing en masse.
Online meetings also don’t help administrators build camaraderie or allow people to see who’s paying attention because administrators can turn off their cameras, he added.
“You lose the whole element of access and responsibility. That’s the whole point of democracy, that’s the whole point of publicly funded institutions,” White said.
“Unfortunately, with virtual, if you provide wider access to meetings and participation, you also eliminate the possibility, for example, of delegations being able to appear in person, face to face with their elected representatives.
“You eliminate the possibility for the media to ask frank questions and to have access to the entire board of directors. You lose the ability for groups to protest decisions and be present during debates.
Judith Bishop, who served five terms as board chair during a 26-year run that ended in 2014, said she agrees “staff and trustee convenience comes first.” before other very important principles”.
She said the many benefits of in-person meetings include informal conversations with students, staff and parents when special accomplishments are recognized or a choir performs.
“Hearing a variety of voices, not just the most organized ones that can set up delegation, is really important,” Bishop said.
“The public who are present also have the opportunity to ask you questions about why you voted in such a way or what you meant by such and such,” she said.
“I think the board should always explore ways to be as open to the public as possible and engage with its stakeholders. These are difficult concepts. It’s not easy, especially when you’re a big organization.