EDITORIAL: Ontario board’s mixed signals, secrecy undercut public’s trust

The Ontario School Board has made a bit more of a mess of the controversies in the local school system. The actions by the board last week involve more secrecy than is wise. Board members apparently don’t understand how much community trust is at stake.

At first blush, it would appear the board moved with certainty and clarity.

The board members agreed – finally – to mediate their differences with school administrators. They had brushed off such proposals before. And they did little to explain publicly why the change of mind.

The board members also took the extraordinary action of condemning and censuring two of their own – Derrick Draper and Eric Evans. On its own, the 3-0 board vote seemed to signal the board was up to policing its members.

But the stated reason for the sanction was pretty vague. The board cited violations of its own policies, a shared blame for Draper and Evans in one instance and blame alone for Draper in another. Looking in from the outside, reasonable observers are left to scratch their heads about just what it was that Draper and Evans did to earn public rebuke.

That’s because the board decided to keep the investigative report it obtained under lock and key. This investigation was done at taxpayer expense. The purpose was to investigate the conduct of not school employees but elected public officials. And the investigation was extensive.

But the people paying for the report don’t get to see it. Those who would benefit from the truth – parents, teachers and even students – are essentially told that the findings are none of their business.

Board chair Renae Corn, speaking for the board, provided virtually no explanation for the secrecy. She said only that the board acted on its attorney’s advice.

That’s a convenient dodge. It also implies the board had no choice but to keep the report from the public. That’s not true. The attorney works for the board – not the other way around. The board has all the authority it needs to make the report public. It did so in a 2019 case and the district didn’t collapse, people didn’t run for the courthouse, and the public got a chance to independently judge what was going on.

But last year, the board opted for secrecy, prompting then-Chair Mike Blackaby to quit on principle.

“I believe the public has a right to know the outcome of the investigations and an accounting for the thousands of dollars spent on attorney fees,” he wrote in a statement last year.

He is right, but now the board again saying to the community: Trust us. Why?

The board again spent what is likely to be several thousand dollars investigating its own members. They tell the community something happened that was so serious that it warranted public condemnation. By withholding the report, the board is protecting its own from full public accountability, shielding a colleague from too much public heat.

Keeping the report secret was bad enough.

But then the board nearly erased the potency of its censure. The board followed its censure vote with a declaration that no board member was asked to resign – and that the involved board members warrant public thanks for their service.

What? The intent seemed to be to pull the thorn from the paws of those censured. The message to them seemed to be: We didn’t really mean what we said about condemning you. It was almost like a political wink-wink – we were just covering our behinds.

There may be a reasonable explanation for this two-track response, but the public isn’t getting it. The Enterprise offered every remaining board member – Corn, Evans, Craig Geddes and Blanca Rodriguez – a chance to explain themselves. They chose silence. Their silence can be interpreted fairly as having no reasonable explanation for both censuring and then appearing to excuse bad conduct.

This was all compounded by Draper’s fit, quitting behind closed doors as he learned the findings were critical of him. Draper has been volatile in board meetings before and he was once again. And he’s since stayed silent on whether he truly was quitting – board rules say he has to resign in writing – and whether he’s continuing to campaign to win the seat again. Voters should speak loudly on that point, rejecting his brand of service and instead giving challenger Tom Greco a chance to bring stability and maturity to the board.

As for the remaining board members, they have to look hard at their conduct.

They should release the investigative report, owing more duty to citizens than to a lawyer. At the least, they owe the community more facts about what happened. Otherwise, they again let rumor rule the day.

They also need to show that they truly mean to engage in mediation, to reduce the white-hot conflicts between board members and school executives. The worst move now would be for board members to agree to a sit-down – but only for show. If they come to the table to talk, board members had best come with an open mind and sincerity to improve. Otherwise, they will again fail the community. – LZ


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