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Four of the seven members of the District 202 School Board will attend a four-day conference in Baltimore, this month. The conference titled, “Summit for Courageous Conversations,” is sponsored by the Pacific Education Group.
A memo dated Sept. 11 from Superintendent Eric Witherspoon to the Board recommended that a Board meeting scheduled for Oct. 12 be cancelled since “several school board members will be attending the Summit for Courageous Conversations.” The memo goes on to explain that agenda items scheduled to be handled at the Oct. 12 meeting will be addressed at other meetings. The memo was discussed at the Sept. 15 Board meeting.
“Who’s going?” asked Board member Gretchen Livingston of the Summit. “The memo didn’t say.”
Board President Pat Savage-Williams indicated she is going, as are Anne Sills, Monique Parsons and Mark Metz.
“Is it necessary for all four to go? We just heard about budget cuts and (cuts in staff) professional development,” continued Ms. Livingston.
“We’re also hearing about the need for equity work,” responded Ms. Savage-Williams. “That’s huge.”
“Since equity is a major part of what we do,” said Board member Monique Parsons, she is anticipating that the conference will help her, “be more in line with Board goals and speak the same language.”
The RoundTable subsequently learned that not all members of the Board were invited to attend the conference and some had not heard anything about four members planning to attend it until the memo about cancelling the Oct. 12 Board meeting was circulated.
Board Member Jonathan Baum told the RoundTable that he has “no knowledge” about the details of the planned conference “except what was discussed in the public meeting” on Sept. 15. “I don’t know how it was decided Title 1 funds would be used” to fund conference attendance.
Marcus Campbell, ETHS principal/assistant superintendent, stated at the Sept. 15 Board meeting that the conference would be paid for using federal Title 1 funds for professional development.
In a response to RoundTable questions, Bill Stafford, Board Secretary, and Ms. Savage-Williams stated in an email that, “Title I funds can be used for professional development. The District uses those funds for numerous professional development conferences like the annual AVID reading conference we have people attend.” The email also said that Ms. Savage-Williams is “attending in her capacity as a New Trier employee and New Trier will be paying for all of her costs and those of the other New Trier affiliated people attending the conference. Title 1 funding will pay for all the costs for the other three board members.”
The RoundTable also asked about the Open Meetings Act. Under that Act, all meetings of a majority of a quorum of the School Board (three or more members) must be open to the public, unless there is an exception that permits the meeting to be held in closed session and the meeting is closed in accordance with the Act. The Act defines “meeting” 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 a Guide to the 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.”
The email from Mr. Stafford and Ms. Savage-Williams indicates that the topics discussed at the conference may be germane to the affairs of District 202. It says the conference is intended to bring people together from around the country “to engage in deepened conversations about the systematic racism and its impact on opportunity and achievement for all students. 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.”
The email goes on to state, “There is no issue with a majority of a quorum of Board members attending a conference or public activity, so as long as 3 or more do not discuss public business contemporaneously with one another. We have spoken to our attorneys about this matter in the past and they are comfortable with Board members 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 the Board members. …
“If three or more discuss PEG matters and relate it back to the School District there could be a technical violation of the OMA,” continued the email. “To prevent this, our Board members are well aware of the requirements of the OMA and have no intention of violating it.”
“Everything we’ve been doing comes from the foundation of equity,” said Ms. Parsons. “(Many of) my colleagues have already gone through PEG training. I’m just trying to be as informed as I can be and be better able to engage in the conversation.”
The motion to cancel the Oct. 12 meeting passed 6-1, with Board Member Jonathan Baum voting no.