A recent development at District 202 concerns us, both in itself and because it appears to aggravate rather than ameliorate the tension and divisiveness on the Board.
A short memo from Superintendent Eric Witherspoon that was provided to School Board members for their Sept. 15 meeting said several members of the Board will be attending the “Summit for Courageous Conversations” in October and will not be able to attend the Oct. 12 meeting. He recommended that the October meeting be canceled.
The conference, scheduled for Oct. 10-14 in Baltimore, is sponsored by the Pacific Education Group for the purpose of discussing institutional racism, equity, opportunity gaps, and achievement gaps.
When the RoundTable asked Board President Pat Savage-Williams and Board Secretary Bill Stafford what the Board members hoped to achieve by attending the conference, they replied by email that the purpose of the conference is to bring together people from throughout the United States “to engage in deepened conversations about the systematic racism and its impact on opportunity and achievement for all students,” and, “Given the demographics of our community and the history of predictable achievement disparities based on race in our District, this level of conversation is essential to the ETHS community.”
Yet, not all Board members were invited to attend. The fact that some Board members were scheduled to attend the conference came as a surprise to some of those who were not included. Board member Gretchen Livingston asked at the Sept. 15 Board meeting “Who’s going?” The answer was Board members Mark Metz, Monique Parsons, Ms. Savage-Williams, and Anne Sills would be attending.
Jonathan Baum told the RoundTable the memo came as a surprise to him. Doug Holt said he was told about the conference when he attended the Boosterpalooza fundraiser, but he said he could not attend because he could not take off that much time from work.
The RoundTable asked Ms. Savage-Williams and Mr. Stafford in an email how the decision was made to select some Board members and not others. They evaded the question and replied, “All Board members have been encouraged to participate in Beyond Diversity training.”
But we do not know why some members were invited to attend, and to have their costs reimbursed with the District’s Title I funds, and others were not.
We might brush this off as no big deal, except for the context. The Board was recently divided when it was called upon to determine a replacement for Bill Geiger who resigned from the Board. On a motion to appoint Anne Sills to the Board, Ms. Savage-Williams, Mr. Metz, and Ms. Parsons voted yes. Mr. Baum, Ms. Livingston and Mr. Holt voted no. We viewed the tenor of those meetings as acrimonious. Some of the meetings were held in closed session, and while we do not know what was discussed in closed session, Board members were not able to reach a compromise on another candidate. Rather than doing so, the group favoring Ms. Sills were content to leave the decision in the hands of the Regional Superintendent of Schools. He chose Ms. Sills and has been tight-lipped about the process he used.
This latest episode of inviting some Board members to attend a conference at the District’s expense, and not inviting others is divisive. We find that troubling.
We appreciate that Board members may share different views and we expect there to be robust discussion and debate on issues that are important to the District. But with such a rocky and divisive beginning, we are concerned for the students at Evanston Township High School.
We have expressed other concerns we have in light of the fact that a majority of a quorum of the Board is scheduled to attend the conference. Under the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA) a meeting of a majority of a quorum of the District 202 School Board (i.e., three or more members) must be open to the public, unless there is an exception contained in the Act. There is no exception to attend a conference, and the issue is thus whether attending the conference sponsored by PEG constitutes a “meeting” within the meaning of the OMA.
Under the OMA, the word “meeting” is defined as “any gathering … of a majority of a quorum of the members of a public body held for the purpose of discussing public business…” In the Guide to the Illinois Open Meetings Act,” the Attorney General says, “The phrase ‘discussing public business’ refers to an exchange of views and ideas among public body members, on any item germane to the affairs of their public body.” A publication of the Illinois Association of School Boards entitled, “Requirements of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, states, page 5, that the term “public business” would “encompass anything that is pending before the Board – and might include any issue that might reasonably come before the board in the foreseeable future.”
In an email exchange, Mr. Stafford told the RoundTable that the District’s attorneys are comfortable with the four Board members attending the conference and “even attending the same seminar session, asking questions, and engaging in discussion during seminar sessions, so long as the discussion does not evolve into a discussion about our School District among Board members.”
Mr. Stafford provided the RoundTable with two non-binding opinions of the Attorney General’s Office, which he says supports that positon. One of the opinions says members of a public body may attend a seminar, “as long as the public body members do not engage in discussion or deliberation amongst themselves of public business of the body.”
In light of the wording of the statute, we think if three members of the Board participate in a group discussion at a seminar on a matter germane to the affairs of the District, or on a matter that might reasonably come before the Board in the foreseeable future, the gathering comes within the purview of the OMA.
We expect Board members will be sensitive to the requirements of the Open Meetings Act.