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When Board President Suni Kartha and Vice President Anya Tanyavutti were running for the offices of President and Vice President of the District 65 School Board in April 2018 and again in April 2019, they each filed candidacy statements in which they said they supported transparency. Ms. Kartha said in her statement dated April 15, 2019, “My goals for our board continue to be to create greater transparency and inclusiveness in our decision making.”
Yet, Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti have partnered together and conducted meetings at which they, top administrators of the School District and top leaders of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union) have met for the purpose of discussing important issues facing the School District and reaching shared solutions.
Mr. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti said these meetings have been held on a monthly basis for well over a year. The public was not given notice of the meetings or allowed to attend them.
In addition, Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti have held what Ms. Tanyavutti referred to as “weekly supervision” meetings with the former Superintendent and what are referred to as “weekly meetings” with the current Interim Superintendents. Again, the public was not given notice of these meetings or allowed to attend them.
When the RoundTable asked Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti on June 6 to conduct these meetings in the open in accordance with the Open Meetings Act, Ms. Kartha responded, with advice of the District’s attorneys, that she and Ms. Tanyavutti did not constitute a majority of a quorum of the School Board, that they do not constitute a committee of the School Board, and thus they are not subject to the Act. She added that the meetings were “beneficial.”
We are not commenting here on whether the meetings are beneficial or not. Our focus is that important business of the School District is being discussed by top members of the School Board, top administrators of the School District and top leaders of the teachers union behind closed doors, and that decisions, recommendations and proposals are being made in those meetings. We submit that in the interest of transparency the public should be given notice of these meetings and the right to attend them and to know what is being discussed at them.
As summarized in the accompanying sidebar, the RoundTable has asked the Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General’s Office to determine that the meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act. The District’s attorneys have filed responses, arguing that the meetings are not subject to the Open Meetings Act. That issue is now pending before the Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General’s Office.
The Candidacy Statements in April 2018 and 2019
Under District 65 School Board procedures, Board members who wish to serve as President or as Vice President of the School Board submit a one-page document stating their intent to do so and explaining their reasons. In April 2018, Ms. Kartha filed a statement to seek another term as President and Ms. Tanyavutti filed a statement to seek another term as Vice President.
In her April 2018 candidacy statement, Ms. Kartha said in part, “Over the past year board vice-president, Anya Tanyavutti, and I have worked intentionally to improve stakeholder collaboration and trust. Envisioning a joint leadership model that includes board, administration, and teachers, we instituted monthly meetings of board, administrative, and DEC leadership.”
In her 2018 candidacy statement, Ms. Tanyavutti stated in part, “In the past year, as a leadership team, in partnership with Board President Suni Kartha, we” have achieved certain accomplishments. One of the accomplishments mentioned was “we facilitated … monthly meetings between DEC, Administration, and Board leadership in order to provide proactive opportunities to discuss need and shared solutions.”
In April 2019, Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti ran for re-election to their respective offices of President and Vice President.
Ms. Kartha said in her candidacy statement dated April 15, 2019, “Board Vice-President, Anya Tanyavutti, and I continue to meet monthly with administrative and DEC leadership, which has resulted in conversations about joint leadership on equity priorities (including brainstorming ways that we could support DEC’s spearheading of Black Lives Matter in Schools Week) and an in-depth review of current assessment practices.”
Ms. Tanyavutti said in her April 15, 2019, candidacy statement, “In the past two years as a leadership team, in partnership with Board President Suni Kartha, we” have achieved certain accomplishments. The statement also said, “Additionally, in this time we facilitate weekly supervision discussions with the Superintendent … as well monthly meetings between DEC, Administration, and Board leadership in order to provide proactive opportunities to discuss needs and shared solutions.”
By their own admission, Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti have been acting, “as a leadership team, in partnership” with each other since before April 2018, and have been holding monthly meetings with top administrators of District 65 and top leaders of DEC, and discussing important business of the District to reach “shared solutions.” At some point, they also implemented the practice of holding weekly “supervision” meetings with the Superintendent. This has all been done behind closed doors.
These candidacy statements were provided to members of the School Board, so Board members knew that Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti were conducting these meetings. The Board re-elected Ms. Kartha as President and Ms. Tanyavutti as Vice-President of the Board for a one-year term in May 2018. The Board elected them to the same offices on April 22, 2019, with four members voting yes and two abstaining.
What’s Going on in These Meetings?
The Monthly Meetings
On May 31, 2019, the RoundTable submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the School District asking that the District produce, among other things, records showing the date of each monthly meeting that Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti held with top administrators of District 65 and top leaders of DEC between Nov. 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019, and the date of each weekly meeting they held between March 1 and May 31, 2019. The FOIA request also asked for all records reflecting what was discussed at those meetings.
On June 7, the School District produced records showing that in the period between Nov. 1, 2018, through May 31, 2019, monthly meetings were scheduled between Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti, top administrators of District 65 and top leaders of DEC on Dec. 19, 2018; Jan. 23, 2019; Feb. 20, 2019; March 20, 2019; April 17, 2019; May 15, 2019; and May 22, 2019.
Records on the full scope of the discussions held in these private meetings are limited. The range of topics proposed for discussion at the meetings, though, included whether or not to move forward with a proposal concerning Lincoln and Washington elementary schools, how to address teacher personal/sick days and issues regarding substitute teachers, expectations for teachers and schools when racial incidents occur, hiring teachers of color, helping teachers and parents partner more on equity work, how to expand collaboration among different leadership groups, and the types of assessments that would be used in 2019-2020, and when they would occur.
The most detailed information about the discussions at these meetings became available when administrators summarized an assessment plan for the 2019-20 school year at a June 3, 2019 School Board meeting. A 13-page memo prepared by Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, and Donna Cross, Director of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and Social Emotional Learning, was circulated to Board members for the meeting.
The memo and other information available to the RoundTable reflects that Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti, top administrators of District 65, and top leaders of DEC had extensive discussions concerning the District’s assessment policies and practices at the April 17, May 15 and May 22, 2019 monthly meetings referred to above. The memo also reflects that many decisions were made in these meetings, including the following:
• The group defined a goal and a set of principles to guide the assessment framework design;
• The group came to a shared understanding that the District 65 assessment framework needed to have at least three types of assessments;
• The group agreed on the assessments that would be given at each grade level and when the assessments would be given;
• The group made seven changes to the District’s assessment practices, and significantly reduced the amount of time that would be spent on assessments.
At the June 3, 2019, School Board meeting, Ms. Kartha said, “This memo really represents months of intensive work, and I think you captured it so well, too, of everything we discussed and the conclusions we came up to. … Anya and I were there along the way. I think this is a tremendous start.”
Ms. Tanyavutti said, “I echo … I think this is an excellent capture of the conversation and the months of work and the many, many different perspectives that were shared but I also just want to highlight that it’s a representation of collaborative work centered around concerns for children’s experience in the classroom.”
Dr. Beardsley said, “This is, I think, a very strong virtually final draft.”
It appears that Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti discussed and participated in shaping the new assessment plan in a series of private meetings. The plan had their stamp of approval before it was presented to the Board, and before it was discussed in the open by members of the Board. Board members’ comments at the June 3 meeting were minimal. The Board was not asked to vote on the plan.
More recently, Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti held a meeting with top administrators at District 65 and top leaders at DEC on Sept. 12. A memo produced to the RoundTable in response to an FOIA request says the “priority topic” of the meeting was to discuss “improving school climate and culture,” and it states, “Thank you to Suni and Anya for participating in this dialogue around how to incorporate this meaningful feedback.”
Another important topic discussed according to the memo was: “Administrators talked about the opportunity gap and the need for more rigor to enable more students to experience college and career readiness levels, especially for students of color and English language learners.”
The memo goes on to say, “This dialogue will continue and we will work towards a more productive plan that brings both sides to the table to find solutions for students to access higher levels of learning across all classrooms.”
These are important issues. Defining what constitutes a college and career readiness level, how to increase the rigor of instruction and level of learning for all students, especially for students of color and English language learners, and how to measure progress toward meeting a college and career readiness goal are critical issues.
We think when the top two School Board members are meeting and discussing these issues with the top administrators of District 65 and top leaders of DEC and discussing a plan and a solution, the discussions should be conducted in the open, and the public should have a right to participate and give input.
We would be very concerned if these issues are discussed behind closed doors because, as we have expressed in many editorials during the past few years, we believe Districts 202 and 65 are on a path to set low expectations for what constitutes college readiness.
The Weekly Meetings
Documents produced in response to the RoundTable’s FOIA request reflect that Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti were scheduled (or tentatively scheduled) to hold weekly supervision meetings with the Superintendent on the following dates between March 1, 2019 and May 30, 2019: March 5, 12 or 13, 19, and 26; April 2, 9, 16 or 17, 22 or 23, and 30; and May 7 or 8 and 14.
The District has admitted that in the period between April 16 and May 14, Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti met on April 22 and May 8 with the Superintendent and discussed, among other things, “supervision of the Superintendent.”
More recently, documents produced in response to an FOIA request show that Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti were scheduled to hold “weekly meetings” with the Interim Superintendents on Sept. 3 and Sept. 26. Some of the agenda topics for discussion included a draft document for priorities, updates on the Joint Literacy Goal with ETHS and a joint statement, and the superintendent search.
Meetings Going Forward
It is apparent that Ms. Kartha and Tanyavutti plan to continue these monthly and weekly meetings. An email produced to the RoundTable schedules seven monthly meetings for November through June 2020. And another email schedules 26 weekly meetings between Nov. 1 and June 25, 2020.
On Oct. 21, the RoundTable asked to interview Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti and asked alternatively that they provide information about the purpose of the monthly and weekly meetings with administrators or Board leaders, the topics discussed, the reason that they are attending the meetings, the role that each plays in the meetings, whether their input at the meetings is taken into account and/or has an influence on or helps shape decisions, proposals or recommendations arrived at during the meetings, and anything else they would like to add.
Ms. Kartha responded by email:
“The various filings that our attorneys have prepared in response to the RoundTable’s filings to the Public Access Bureau adequately answer your questions. To summarize, the meetings that Anya and I have with administrators and other stakeholders, whether individually or collectively, are in support of our duties as elected Board leaders, as outlined in Board policy, and in no way subvert or substitute the role of the full Board in making decisions or creating policy. To reiterate, no Board-level decisions are made at these meetings. All matters that require Board consideration are brought before the full Board at either an open meeting or, where appropriate under the Open Meetings Act, in closed session, with every Board member being given an equal opportunity to review, provide feedback and, as appropriate, vote.
“As we have also already stated, none of these meetings violate or even implicate the Open Meetings Act. We trust that if you proceed with the article you will explain to readers that the Open Meetings Act only applies if a majority of a quorum of Board members is present at the meeting, typically meaning three Board members must be present. Only one or two Board members have ever been present at any of the meetings where you raise Open Meetings Act concerns, and the Board has never established a leadership committee comprised of only myself and Ms. Tanyavutti.”
It is apparent, though, that these meetings are taking place between the top two leaders of the School Board, the top administrators of the District and the top leaders of DEC, and that important issues facing the District are being discussed at these meetings. In addition, as Ms. Tanyavutti put it in her two candidacy statements, a purpose of the meetings is to reach “shared solutions.”
And the memo presented at the June 3 School Board meeting reflects that the group made decisions at a series of these meetings concerning various aspects of a 2019-2020 student assessment plan.
If the decisions are not Board-level decisions, then why are Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti participating in making them? And if they have already vetted and approved a plan that is provided to the Board for informational purposes or to discuss or to vote on, we think it diminishes the role of other members of the Board.
Not all Board members have been sanguine about these meetings. On April 22, 2019, then Board member Lindsay Cohen abstained from voting to re-elect Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti to the offices of President and Vice President of the School Board. She said, “I am also frustrated by the lack of transparency by the Board leadership although that was promised two years ago during this very meeting. It is clear that there is significant back door diplomacy that is occurring by this Board leadership and I have not been privileged to most of it. Meetings that occur with Northwestern University, meetings that occur with union leaders, meetings that occur throughout the community, meetings that occur with school leaders and administration all go unreported. In the past two years, I have received only a handful of updates regarding any of these meetings, and certainly have not received an invitation to participate. This lack of transparency inhibits our potential as a governing body; it’s not just a petty grievance.”
We urge Ms. Kartha, Ms. Tanyavutti and the School Board to provide notice of the monthly and weekly meetings to the public and allow the public to attend them. We think this should be done as a matter of transparency and inclusivity.
As summarized in the above sidebar, we have asked the Public Access Counselor to rule that the meetings must be open to the public and held in accordance with the Open Meetings Act.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act applies to any meeting of a majority of a quorum of the members of a “public body” held for the purpose of discussing public business.
The term “public body” is defined to include school boards and “any subsidiary bodies” of school boards “including but not limited to committees and subcommittees which are supported in whole or in part by tax revenue, or which expend tax revenue …”
On June 14, the RoundTable filed a Request for Review with the Public Access Counselor of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, asking among other things, that the Public Access Counselor determine that Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti were acting as a “committee” or “subsidiary body” of the School Board when they conducted their monthly meetings with the top administrators of District 65 and top leaders of DEC and when they conducted their weekly supervision meetings with the Superintendent. The RoundTable further asks that the Public Access Counselor order that any future meetings be held in accordance with the Open Meetings Act.
The RoundTable cited, among other legal authorities, Attorney General Opinion No. 82-030 in support of its request. That Opinion states in part: “An example of the [Open Meeting] Act’s application is best drawn by reference to a seven member principal public body. A majority of a quorum of such a body is three and thus, two members of the body could discuss the body’s business without complying with the requirements of the Open Meetings Act. However, if the two members are members of a committee or other subsidiary body of the principal body, and if such committee or other subsidiary body consists of five or fewer members, the Act would apply to the discussions of the two members relative to the business of the committee of the subsidiary body.”
On June 25, the Public Access Counselor determined that further action was warranted with respect to the RoundTable’s Request for Review and asked the District to provide certain information and to respond to the RoundTable’s allegations.
The District filed a response on July 9. In its response, the District said that the School Board had not approved a committee comprised of Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti and that they thus do not constitute a committee or subsidiary body of the Board. In addition, the District argues that Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti are only two of the seven members of the School Board and do not constitute a quorum of the School Board. As such, the District argues that Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti are free to meet and discuss public business without violating the Open Meetings Act.
The parties have filed additional briefs with the Attorney General’s Office, and each side has raised other arguments and cited legal authorities. The case is awaiting decision by the Public Access Counselor.
IASB Foundational Principles
The Illinois Association of School Board’s Foundational Principles state in part, “The [schhol] board delegates authority to the superintendent to manage the district and provide leadership for the staff. Such authority is communicated through written board policies that designate district ends and define operating parameters. …
”‘Delegates authority to’ means empowering the superintendent and staff to pursue board ends single-mindedly and without hesitation. A board that does (or re-does) staff work disempowers the staff. High levels of superintendent and staff accountability require high levels of delegation.”