Trustee with child in school told to avoid budget talks

A public school board trustee is asking for a second legal opinion after being told she can't vote on budget matters because she has a child in the school system.

Education minister, school board, weigh in to clarify rules

A public school board trustee is asking for a second legal opinion after being told she can't vote on budget matters because she has a child in the school system.

Sheila Taylor, who represents Wards 11 and 13, is one of two trustees who abstained from budget discussions Tuesday night.

A Calgary Board of Education lawyer told her she was in a financial conflict of interest because she had a child in the school system and has a personal interest in school fees, Taylor said Wednesday afternoon.

"I didn't see this coming. I am absolutely shocked and also very concerned about what this means to me, to our board, and to the parents I'm trying to represent," she said.

Trustee Carol Bazinet was also advised she was in a conflict because her husband is a teacher in the public system.

In a written statement released Thursday, board officials said the onus is on trustees to decide if they are in a pecuniary conflict.  

And Education Minister Dave Hancock said it seemed unlikely to him that any trustee would have to be excused from an entire round of budget discussions.

The minister said that while he can't advise the trustees, they generally should be able to identify items on which they are conflicted.

"I do want to make sure that there's an assurance to trustees across the province — who may be thinking this impacts them — that I'm not aware of anything that would suggest that a parent could not be an effective trustee participating in all decisions, other than those that they have a direct pecuniary interest in," he said.

'No blanket prohibition'

According to the school act, trustees must recuse themselves when they have a direct or indirect monetary stake in the issue at hand, such as having a spouse who has an income from the board, said David Anderson, the executive director of the Alberta School Boards Association.

"There is no blanket prohibition against an individual trustee who has a child in the system voting on budget matters. There are ways to structure budgets to avoid that circumstance," he said.

"If that school lunch fee is just an individual item on a budget you would just excuse yourself from that particular discussion."

Anderson said he can't comment on Taylor's case because he doesn't know how the Calgary Board of Education's budget is structured.

Calgary Liberal MLA Kent Hehr said conflict-of-interest rules are important, but this seems like a case of overkill.

"It's really a fine line that they are trying to walk here," he said. "People elected to school boards with children have a right to participate in the democratic process and are probably well suited to sit as trustees."

He is calling on Education Minister Dave Hancock to clarify the issue. However, Hancock's spokesman told CBC News this is a local matter and he won't get involved.

Carol Oliver, who was a public trustee in Calgary from 2001 to 2004, said telling Taylor not to participate in budget talks doesn't make sense and has implications for trustees across the province.

"If you're not permitted to participate in board matters why would you even consider running? So has this been an issue for a long time and no one has brought it to the surface? There's just so many questions around this."

Trustee wants second opinion

Taylor withdrew from the budget talks and didn't vote on Tuesday night because she doesn't want to risk being kicked off the board, but she is looking for a second opinion.

"At the end of the board meeting, I brought forward a motion to have all of this legal advice sent to the Minister of Education and also sent to the Alberta School Boards Association because I want to hear another opinion on this," she said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense. We have boards in this province where every single trustee is a parent of a child in school."

Taylor has worked in accounting and has a business degree from the University of Alberta.

The school board has seven trustees, including the board chair. Three trustees will have students in the school system next year and another was not at the meeting Tuesday night, said Taylor. 

Administrators are planning on cutting 358 jobs for the 2011-2012 school year, and blame the province, saying the provincial budget shorted the board by $61.7 million for the 2011-2012 school year.