I am writing to respond to the article in the Evanston RoundTable titled “A Divisive Board and a Rocky Start to the Year” that appeared in the Oct. 7 issue.
The RoundTable asked if the attendance of four School Board members at the National Summit for Courageous Conversations would be in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Although we did not agree that attendance at a national conference would be in violation of the Open Meetings Act, we sought the opinions of our attorneys to explore this issue. I want to emphasize that our legal consultants consist of the largest team of education lawyers in Illinois and have decades of experience representing schools, school districts and other educational institutions. They have extensive knowledge of the culture, customs and practices of education communities so they help us not only comply with the law but also keep us abreast of evolving “best practices” and provides us with informed judgments about legal trends within education. On this issue, their advice was strong in indicating that attendance at the conference would not be in violation of the Open Meetings Act. They wrote: “if three or more board members attend a PEG seminar and do not during the seminar have contemporaneous deliberative communications regarding school district business, there should be no violation.”
In addition, the board members are well informed about the Open Meetings Act. However, I wrote the entire Board prior to the conference indicating that for our Board members attending the conference, the following precautions would be expected:
1. No more than two Board members attend any session.
2. If three or more Board members are at a session, do not ask questions or speak.
3. If three or more Board members are at a session, don’t sit together.
4. Outside of seminars do not discuss the topics among three or more Board members.
I strongly emphasize that the Board members who attended the conference did not violate Open Meetings Act as was expected. It is my hope that all Board members will take advantage of future opportunities to learn and expand our understanding of issues that impact our school without worry that our community will be distrustful of our intentions.
I have and will continue to encourage Board members to attend conferences that help us better serve our community. If board members did not feel informed about this particular conference, I will make sure this does not happen in the future. In fact, I announced the dates of the next National Summit for Courageous Conversations at the Board meeting last Monday night.
Another point made in the RoundTable article was regarding a description of the Board. It is unfortunate that our Board has been described as “divisive.” We admittedly and expectedly hold opinions that differ. We are committed to expressing them while listening to others. I am willing to compromise and have welcomed the input of all Board members during our discussions. However, I have general principles that I will always express and there may be times when we may not be able to come to an agreement, despite many attempts to do so. This occurred over the summer months when we were called to select a new Board member. As appropriate, much of our discussions occurred in closed sessions. I believe it is important to be transparent about our opinions in open sessions to the degree that it is appropriate and I hope that by engaging in what may sometimes appear as a debate over issues on the table, we are not subject to being labeled as “divisive” or “acrimonious.” We will continue to debate issues because we have members with various opinions. In the meantime, we will remain committed to working as an effective School Board to address the needs of all of our students by working with our community to improve student achievement at ETHS.
I am very excited about the work ahead of us. Our District goals review and revision process is beginning, and we look forward to hearing input from all of our stakeholders. We have posted a schedule of that process. In addition, there is a meeting planned that will be facilitated by a member of the Illinois State School Board Association on Jan. 16 to hear comments and feedback from the public.
Pat Savage-Williams is the President of the Evanston Township High School Board of Education
Editor’s Note: In an email exchange with District 202’s leadership, the RoundTable raised questions and concerns about four members’ of the District 202 School Board (three is a quorum) attending the conference. In our editorial on Oct. 7, we summarized some requirements of the Open Meetings Act (OMA) as well as the District’s position, and we said, “[W]e 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 adhere to that view. We think the four precautions listed in Pat Savage-Williams’ guest essay are good and addressed our concerns.