Is Grand Erie District School Board being too secretive by using too many in camera sessions?

Trustee Carol Ann Sloat said she hasn't missed a board meeting since 2003, when she was first elected to represent Brantford on the Grand Erie District School Board (GEDSB).

That is, until a board-imposed ban initiated in May barred her from attending — and now virtually watching — meetings.

An in camera resolution in May said Sloat was banned for breaching the code of conduct on three incidents, according to the meeting minutes.

While specifics weren’t publicly provided, the sections cited relate to respecting the views of others, keeping information discussed in closed session meetings confidential, and a responsibility to uphold majority decisions passed by the board, and acting for the best interest of the GEDSB.

“They found me guilty, and I'm fighting it in court,” Sloat told The Spectator in a recent interview.

The ban, which Sloat revealed in a Facebook post Feb. 15, comes as the trustee is in legal proceedings with the GEDSB over what she believes is an increasing use of in camera sessions — when the board meets off the public record.

“Things happen in camera that have to happen in camera, but I just think that we've got to be a lot more diligent about what occurs in the public realm,” Sloat told The Spectator.

The Education Act outlines five “very clear” circumstances for a board meeting to move in camera, Michael Barrett, former president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA), told The Spectator.

In a broad sense, it's matters of property, personnel, labour relations, critical components, and a legal nature, such as human rights complaints, that if discussed publicly, “may be damaging, or can interrupt a process toward, for example, the purchase of a property,” Barrett said.

In February 2022, Sloat left an in camera meeting she believed fell outside those guidelines.

She wanted it put on the public record “that I was uncomfortable that stuff is being done in camera,” she told The Spectator.

Sloat did not tell The Spectator specifically what she opposed being in camera, but gave the general example of reports that would have previously gone to the board in public.

Several months after leaving the in camera meeting, Sloat put forward a complaint to the Ombudsman of Ontario, following a board meeting held on May 30 where a motion passed to alter the trustee code of conduct.

She alleged that the board went against the Education Act, by discussing new bylaws and policies in camera, according to the ombudsman letter made public by the board.

The Office of the Ombudsman concluded that the discussions fell within solicitor-client privilege, as they were told during their review the in camera meeting on May 30 was “to receive advice from its solicitors that was intended to be confidential,” the letter said.

Sloat said complaints were brought against her in May, October, and December, resulting in three bans.

She was barred from attending meetings until the end of September, and told she would only have public access to board proceedings.

When the ban was extended in October 2023, Sloat was additionally prevented from watching public livestreams of the meetings.

It’s baffling to Sloat, who said she doesn’t believe “there's any reason to keep me away from attending public board meetings as a taxpaying member of the public.”

Sloat appealed the decision to the board, however, when they upheld it, she sought a judicial review, she told The Spectator.

“I respect the court's time, but I think I need another set of eyes on the decisions that were made,” she said.

In the meantime, Sloat opened up on Facebook about her previously private battle to ask taxpayers if she should resign or stay and fight for constituents, and the response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” she told The Spectator.

“There are a group of trustees and members of the senior administration team who resent the fact that I have challenged them in my defending your right to know,” she wrote in her post.

The GEDSB released a statement the following day, calling Sloat’s post “regrettable and misleading.”

“All trustees have statutory duties that must be fulfilled, and the Board has established a Code of Conduct that governs the conduct of all its Trustees. These rules ensure the orderly operation and work of a student-focused school board. The statutory obligations and rules apply equally to us all, we can’t choose which to follow or ignore, and through the oath of office, we promise to uphold them. As a Board, we need to set this example for staff and students,” the statement read in part.

It went on to say, “Regrettably, Trustee Sloat has repeatedly violated those rules. In each case, the Board, as authorized by the Education Act, found her to be in violation of the Code of Conduct, resulting in her being barred from Board and Committee meetings for a period of time. Trustee Sloat, through her own deliberate actions, has received sanctions which are authorized under the Education Act, to address the behaviour.”

It concluded that on legal advice, the board would not be making further statements, and when The Spectator reached out, they declined to comment.

At a special board meeting on Feb. 26, the board determined Sloat will receive a formal public reprimand “at a date to be determined.”

It's “absolutely incorrect” that “none of us know what Carol Ann has been accused of,” Barrett told The Spectator, pointing to other school boards — York Region District School Board, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, and Limestone District School Board — which have handled trustee transgressions and sanctions publicly.

Barrett sat with Sloat on the OPSBA for more than a decade, and described her as detail oriented.

“She knows the Education Act, she knows bylaws, she knows procedures. So when Carol Ann Sloat is questioning whether or not something should be in camera, then it probably — I would say nine times out of 10 — has legitimacy,” he told The Spectator.

While Barrett said there should be methodology to ensure that people operate within the boundaries of good governance, he has concerns with “using the in camera methodology to shut the voices of dissent down,” he said.

“Democracy dies in the darkness, and this is what we're in, we're in darkness,” he said.

Sloat hopes the Divisional Court branch of the Superior Court of Justice will find her in compliance with the code of conduct when they hear her case in June, she told The Spectator, but in the meantime, she is removed from school board meetings until the end of May 2024, and from committee meetings until the end of May 2025.

“I've taken a great deal of pride in the work I've done and the way that I'm available to people. So not being able to attend board meetings, to ask questions and bring concerns forward and have an open and honest dialogue at the table has been extremely difficult,” Sloat told The Spectator.

Feb. 28, 2022 — Trustee Carol Ann Sloat put on public record that she left an in camera meeting discussion because she did not believe it followed the Education Act, according to meeting minutes.

May 30, 2022 — Sloat voted against a motion to alter the trustee code of conduct.

June 2022 — Sloat put forward a complaint to the Ombudsman of Ontario, following the board meeting held on May 30, according to a letter the board made public.

Oct. 17, 2022 — The ombudsman notified the board they would not pursue the investigation after completing a review, according to a letter made part of the board’s public record.

Oct. 24, 2022 — Sloat was re-elected to serve another four-year term as Brantford trustee in the municipal election.

May 29, 2023 — The board confirmed an in camera resolution, saying that across three incidents, Sloat breached section 1.4 b), 1.3 a), 1.4 e), 1.2 a) and 1.4 a) of the code of conduct, according to meeting minutes.

The board barred Sloat from attending meetings and sitting on committees until the end of September 2023, saying she would only have access to public materials.

June 21, 2023 — Sloat appealed the board's decision, but trustees voted 7-1 that she breached the code of conduct, and voted 5-3 to uphold the sanctions determined on May 15 and reported on May 29, according to minutes from a special board meeting.

Nov. 6, 2023 — An in camera report from a special meeting extended Sloat’s board meeting ban to the end of November 2023, her committee ban was extended to the end of March 2024. It was clarified that Sloat’s ban included attending virtually or “by any other means.”

Dec. 18, 2023 — A special meeting extended Sloat’s ban from board meetings until February 2024, and her ban from committees to the end of November 2024. Also noted that she will receive a public censure.

Feb. 15, 2024 — Sloat opened up about what she is going through with the board, on her Facebook page, asking taxpayers how they would like her to proceed.

Feb. 16, 2024 — GEDSB shared a statement from the board, saying Sloat “repeatedly violated” rules in the code of conduct, resulting in sanctions “authorized under the Education Act.”

Feb. 26, 2024 — A special meeting of the board extended Sloat’s board meeting ban until the end of May 2024, and her committee meeting ban until the end of May 2025. The board also resolved that Trustee Sloat will receive a public censure “at a date to be determined.”

Celeste Percy-Beauregard’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about Brant County. Reach her at cpercybeauregard@torstar.ca.

Celeste Percy-Beauregard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator