Some Ontario school boards are limiting access to public meetings. It's a complex issue — here's why
Some school boards in Ontario are grappling with community pushback against trustee decisions on issues ranging from racial inequity to raising Pride flags.
That pushback has led to the York Catholic District School Board calling in police to manage raucous crowds, Durham District School Board testing a ban of in-person spectators after it emptied its gallery during a board meeting, and most recently, Peel District School Board contending with an organized walk-in during a vote on Wednesday.
Parent advocate Danielle Dowdy says disrupting the meeting was the community's last resort after the board started enforcing a 2021 rule that prohibits the public from delegating in board meetings. As for why and when it began enforcing the rule, the board did not provide a direct response.
"You've got elected officials who've explicitly, you know, got a policy in place that says 'We don't want to hear from the public,'" said Dowdy.
"But there was a lot of hurt and pain that needed to come out, and that they needed to hear and understand the exact ramifications of their very careless and very unthoughtful decision."
Critics say the issue highlights the importance of boards being able to discern the difference between hateful rhetoric and genuine community concern over controversial trustee decisions, while ensuring the safety of board members, staff and the community doesn't come at the expense of accountability or transparency.
LISTEN | Community leader, chair of trustees on new ban to name schools after people:
Ontario Student Trustees' Association describes itself as the largest student stakeholder group in Ontario, advocating for over two million students.
"We need to dig a little bit deeper into why community groups feel the need to disrupt in such a way," said the association's president Aisha Mahmoud, who's also a Grade 12 student at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.
"Boards have to be accountable to the community that elected them, and when there is no formal process ... that is concerning and could even possibly be the cause of a protest like that being organized in the first place."
Walk-in prompts board to move meeting
Dowdy says at the Peel board's most recent meeting Wednesday, community members were protesting trustees' decision to walk back roughly two years of work toward naming the board's new Centre of Black Excellence after Kola Iluyomade.
Iluyomade, who died in summer of 2021, was a founding member of Advocacy Peel, which describes itself as a grassroots multicultural organization led by parents that was founded in response to the "discrimination, pain and suffering" of children of African descent who attend schools in the PDSB.
The board says the move was due to a recently introduced policy that prohibits naming of buildings after people except in the case of a slim set of criteria — that Iluyomade doesn't fit.
Members disrupted the meeting and were heard calling out "Traitor!" and "Racist!" to the board as it tried to proceed with its agenda.
"It felt for me a lot like a funeral instead of a meeting," said Dowdy. "And when I say funeral, I mean like it was the death of all of this work that we've been doing."
Police told CBC Toronto they attended the Mississauga meeting midway in response to an online spectator's call, but officers "were reassured that there was no concern for safety and that we were not required."
The meeting was eventually moved to a closed room, Dowdy says, where protestors eventually found it but could not enter. No arrests or injuries were reported.
When asked to comment, Peel District School Board spokesperson Malon Edwards says the board values the "time and effort community members have" in supporting Peel students, adding members of the public have the option to delegate in front of committee meetings.
"While the landscape of the Peel District School Board has altered significantly over the past year ... our commitment to centring student and community voice remains steadfast," wrote Edwards.
Safety, security top of mind: school board association
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, says disruptive meetings fortunately aren't common at the province's 72 boards. But, when they do arise, she says limiting public participation is never taken lightly.
"We believe that the public should be able to see the what we're doing," said Abraham. "It's when it becomes disruptive, it's when it becomes unsafe, that's what the issue is."
Abraham says when boards remove the option for members of the public to attend, there's still other ways for people to participate, such as watching the live stream of the meeting online, or contacting them after the session.
"It absolutely is of concern when publicly elected officials are not able to do their job in a safe and orderly way," said Abraham.
"You can reach them in other ways other than sitting in a gallery and screaming out at them."
Those sorts of outbursts are what shut down a Durham District School Board meeting on May 15.
Donna Edwards, chair of the board of trustees in that region, says they also led the board to temporarily ban in-person attendees for the past two meetings it had this week.
"There were ongoing disruptions from the public gallery that made it really unfeasible to continue with the business of the board," said Edwards, adding the crowd was getting riled up over discussions on gender identity education and raising the Pride flag.
"We've taken temporary pause to assess our current measures and consider how to proceed in future matters in a way that actually permits public engagement while maintaining respectful interactions and security."
Focus on students, not politics, student group says
Mahmoud says she's hesitant to characterize any community action during public meetings as bad, instead saying incidents need to be looked at individually.
"If 2SLGBTQ+ students in the Catholic school board don't feel safe and then there are community members who are actively contributing to that, that's a completely different issue than ... a community group who feels that the board has not done their due diligence to consult them on a decision."
Mahmoud says the association is trying to work with student trustees to make sure their voices don't get lost behind the "political agendas" of either community groups or trustees.
"It can feel like we're kind of caught in that crossfire and students and their experiences are almost disregarded," said Mahmoud.
"What students are concerned about is that kind of hateful rhetoric affecting how we learn in classrooms, what we learn, our ability to fully be ourselves and be safe in our schools."