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Analysis

Two of the most important issues facing School District 65 in the past year are reopening the schools for in-person learning and addressing the District’s projected deficits. The reopening of schools was delayed three times, and schools reopened for about 3,600 students with a hybrid model on Feb. 16.  The projected operating deficits are forecast to grow to $15 million by the 2025-2026 (FY’26) school year – if new revenues are not found or expenses cut.

Several members of the District 65 School Board have discussed these matters in private with District 65’s top administrators. A resolution adopted by the Board on Aug. 10, 2020, even required the Superintendent to consult with the Board’s President when making significant changes to the District’s reopening schools plan.   

School Board President Anya Tanyavutti told the RoundTable that there was no violation of the Open Meetings Act (OMA) in holding these discussions because a majority of a quorum of the Board did not participate in any discussion.

The requirements of the OMA are triggered if a majority of a quorum of a public body gathers to discuss public business. A school district falls within the definition of a public body, as do its committees and any other subsidiary body.

The community, though, has not had the opportunity to observe the private discussions and to observe whether those discussions played a role in shaping the decisions and policies of the District.

Return to In-Person Learning in School

School District 65, like all other public school districts in the State, shut down its schools for in-person learning in March 2020 and shifted to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the summer of 2020, District 65 developed a return to school plan with input from many people. Under the plan announced in late July, parents could choose whether to keep their children in a remote learning setting or have them attend school for in-person learning.

Under the plan, all students were to begin the school year on Aug. 27 with remote learning. Students whose parents opted for in-person learning were scheduled to return to school for in-person learning on Sept. 29, if it was safe to do so.

Changes to the Reopening School Plan

The date to reopen the schools for in-person learning was delayed three times due to the pandemic. Superintendent Devon Horton kept the community apprised of each of the changes, and he discussed the metrics considered in making the decisions and the concerns for health and safety.

  • On Sept. 11, Dr. Horton advised that in-person learning would be delayed until Nov. 16, assuming it was safe to do so.  
  • On Oct. 30, Dr. Horton changed the date to reopen the schools for in-person learning from Nov. 16 to Jan. 19, 2021, again assuming it was safe to do so.
  • On Jan. 5, Dr. Horton announced that the launch of a hybrid learning model would be delayed beyond Jan. 19.  
  • On Jan. 20, Dr. Horton announced that the District would bring students back for in-person learning on Feb. 16, using a hybrid learning model.

In early December, many parents began to publicly ask that the schools open for in-person learning, with many parents arguing their children were suffering from emotional and mental health issues and falling behind academically. They argued that other schools were opening successfully and that recent studies showed it could be done safely.

Other parents supported the decisions to delay the opening of the schools, citing concerns for students’ safety and the risk of community spread.

This became a highly contentious issue. After adopting the resolution to reopen the schools on Aug. 10, 2020, the School Board did not publicly discuss or vote on when the schools should reopen for in-person learning.

The Private Meetings Between Members of the Board and Administrators

At a candidate forum sponsored by the Central Street Neighbors Association on March 17, candidates were asked how they would like School District 65 to go about addressing COVID-19, including reopening the schools, repairing the damage that had been done, and addressing mental health issues. When it was time for Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan to answer, the moderator tweaked the question to ask if she agreed or disagreed with some of the criticism leveled by other candidates about how the District handled the reopening of schools, adding, “What do you think?”

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan, Vice President of the School Board, said, “I think one of the pieces of this discussion is largely about language. I think when we talk about safe reopening of schools, I think all of us want safe reopening of schools, we just have a different definition of what is safe. It’s not that some of us want schools to stay closed, or some of us want to whatever.

“So you know, I think, for me, you know, we followed the research that we that, and I just want to be candid, like, this is probably one of the hardest decision-making processes I’ve ever been a part of in my life, because being wrong could lead to death. Right. This was people’s lives were on the line, we were making these decisions. And so, you know, we it was it was critical that we engage all stakeholders in it. As Joey [Hailpern, a member of the School Board] mentioned, we have five unions, you know, and it was probably the hardest, one of the hardest points for all of us to navigate through this decision making together. … And we do want to engage with them and have full conversations and figure out how to get our schools open, but without cost of life.”

Because the RoundTable had not observed the discussions described by Ms. Lindsay-Ryan at a publicly held School Board meeting, the RoundTable asked her in an email when and where the discussions and the decision-making process took place. The RoundTable also asked her to describe in more detail the discussions.

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan did not respond.

The RoundTable also asked Ms. Tanyavutti when the discussions referred to by Ms. Lindsay-Ryan were held, if they were in an open meeting, a closed-session meeting, or outside the context of a School Board meeting. The RoundTable also asked if the Board had made a decision to reopen the schools, and if so, when.  

Ms. Tanyavutti responded by email on March 23. She said, “The Board adopted by resolution the reopening plan and process on August 10, 2020. That resolution granted the Superintendent discretion regarding the evolution of the reopening plan. It also contemplates consultation by the Superintendent with the Board President and Board. Throughout this year, Dr. Horton has consulted with the our [sic] Board leadership team regarding the District’s reopening plans. Those discussions at times involved one or both of us, but never involved a majority of a quorum of the Board. Such discussions are appropriate, conform to the past practice of communications between former Superintendents with Board officers, comply with the OMA, and comply with the reopening resolution. Again, the intent of that Board adopted resolution was to grant Dr. Horton flexibility in changing the reopening plan as events dictate during this extraordinary period.”

The August 10 resolution approved a reopening plan which provided that all students would return to school in a remote-learning mode on Aug. 27 and continue through at least Sept. 29, and that the District would provide an in-person learning pathway on Sept. 29, if was deemed safe to do so.  

The resolution also authorized the Superintendent to modify the reopening plan from time to time, but required, “Any substantive changes to the Plan shall be made in consultation with the President of the Board and then promptly reported to the Board which may affirm, modify or disapprove of the changes. The changes shall, however, remain in full force and effect until such time as the Board acts, unless otherwise provided by law.”

From the community’s standpoint, changing the dates that schools would reopen for in-person learning was a substantive change, as were changes in the metrics and the change to a hybrid model.  

Under the resolution, Superintendent Horton was required to consult with Ms. Tanyavutti in making these changes, and according to Ms. Tanyavutti’s emails she did discuss the District’s reopening plans with Dr. Horton, sometimes with another member of the Board’s leadership team. Under the Resolution, Ms. Tanyavutti was engaging in these discussions with Dr. Horton as the Board’s delegated representative.  

Once Dr. Horton decided to make a substantive change in the reopening plan in consultation with Ms. Tanyavutti, the School Board had the right, under the resolution, to discuss the change and to vote whether to affirm, modify or disapprove the change. Ms. Tanyavutti told the RoundTable that to date, no change in the reopening plan was placed on the School Board’s agenda as an action item.

She also said, “Under the resolution, formal action is within the Board’s discretion. To date, other than the original resolution, the Board has not taken formal action regarding the evolution of the reopening plan. The Board and the community have been well informed regarding every portion of the District’s reopening during this fluid and unique period.”

The August 10 resolution provided a method to address the reopening of schools during the pandemic, clearly a unique period. What it also did, though, is delegate the President of the Board as the representative of the Board to consult with the Superintendent about when to reopen the schools for in-person learning, about new or different metrics to use in making that decision, and about what the reopening model would look like.

Ms. Tanyavutti said that she and another member of the Board who was on the Board “leadership team” participated in these discussions.

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said she participated in the decision-making process about how to get the schools open.  

In these discussions, the Board’s President and another Board member had the ability to raise questions, to make suggestions, to pose objections, and to influence or shape or change when the schools would reopen, the metrics that would be used, and the model.

The community, however, did not have the opportunity to observe these discussions or observe how the decisions were shaped and made during the course of those discussions.

Ms. Tanyavutti says these discussions were held in compliance with the OMA because a majority of a quorum of the School Board did not partake in any of the discussions.

The OMA recognizes that “the people have a right to be informed as to the conduct of their business.” And, the stated intent of the OMA is “to ensure that the actions of public bodies be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

The OMA implements this policy by requiring that a “meeting” of a majority of a quorum of a public body be held in the open and with advance notice. For a seven-member board, such as the District 65 School Board, a majority of a quorum is three members of the Board.

The OMA defines a “public body” to include committees and subsidiary bodies of a public body.

School District 202 adopted a similar resolution on July 9.

The Creation of a Long-term Plan to Address the Projected Deficits

Last August the Finance Committee decided to explore how to address the projected operating deficits facing the District. At that time, the operating deficits were projected to grow to $12.4 million by FY’26.

Between then and the end of January 2021, the Finance Committee held two meetings to discuss the projected deficits, one on Nov. 19 for an hour, and one on Dec. 14, for 90 minutes. The Nov. 19 meeting primarily consisted of a presentation by administrators of the District’s financial position and its structural deficit.

The Plan for Private Meetings

At the Nov.19, Finance Committee meeting, Joey Hailpern, Chair of the Finance Committee, said members of the School Board would be conducting two-by-two meetings with administrators to gather information. He said, “It’s not meant to subvert the public conversation in this process. No more than two Board members might meet with Dr. Horton, or might meet with Beatrice in HR [Beatrice Davis, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources] to ask questions around this process and do our due diligence.”

Ms. Tanyavutti told the RoundTable in a Dec. 2 email that members of the Board would be having private meetings with administrators that would not be open to the public, but that the conclusions reached at those meetings would be disclosed to the community.

Ms. Tanyavutti said the Board is demonstrating transparency in “our disclosure about the informal meetings that we will be having with Administration to ensure we are as informed trustees as possible. As part of our commitment to transparency we will disclose any conclusions that we come to as a result of these meetings, though we will not be opening those meetings to the public, due to the sensitive content being discussed as hypotheticals (programs and reduction in force that may impact individuals’ household income levels). We do not want to cause unnecessary anxiety or disclosure of HR status of individuals. …”

The Dec. 14 Finance Committee Meeting

At the Dec. 14 Finance Committee meeting, the Board appeared to concur that it would be necessary to cut about $10 million in expenses to balance revenues and expenses by the 2024-25 (FY’25) school year, but several Board members said they still wanted some additional information.

There was no discussion about how much should be cut for next school year, 2021-22 (FY’22), or in each subsequent year. For FY’22, the District was projecting a surplus of $67,243.

The Finance Committee did not meet again until Feb. 8.

The Presentation of a Long-Term Plan on Jan. 27 and 30

On. Jan. 27 and 30, a week before the Feb. 8 Finance Committee meeting, four members of the School Board presented a long-term plan to eliminate the structural deficit to members of the community in two virtual cafes.  The plan had not previously been presented to the Finance Committee or the School Board. Neither the Finance Committee nor the School Board discussed or voted on the plan in public session before the plan was presented to the community.

Ms. Tanyavutti told the RoundTable that District administrators had separate meetings with the Board members to discuss the presentation, but she said none of those meetings involved more than two members of the School Board. Yet, these separate meetings led to a presentation of the plan to the community – by four members of the School Board, a majority of the School Board.

The Virtual Cafes and the Long-Term Plan

On Jan. 27, Ms. Tanyavutti and Mr. Hailpern held a virtual Community Cafe in English; and on Jan. 30, Board members Rebeca Mendoza and Sergio Hernandez held a virtual cafe in Spanish. They presented 18 slides, including slides titled, “Long Term Plan to Eliminate Structural Deficit” and “District 65’s Financial Sustainability Plan.”

The slide titled “Long-Term Plan to Eliminate Structural Deficit” lists the annual reductions needed to eliminate the structural deficit as follows:

  • FY’22:   $2,052,111
  • FY’23:   $3,290,844  
  • FY’24:   $5,000,000
  • FY’25:   $4,000,000

A copy of the slide is reproduced below.

Another slide says there are three phases to the plan:  

  • Phase 1 includes balancing the FY’22 budget “with budget efficiencies and reductions” and “micro-shifts in transportation and interventionist services.” (FY’21 to be implemented in FY’22)
  • Phase 2 includes a curriculum audit, a student assignments master plan, a facilities master plan, a demographic study, a purchasing card review, a staffing review, and ERT – New Finance and HR software (FY’22 to be implemented in FY’22-FY’23)
  • Phase 3 includes: findings and recommendations from Phase 2 audits and studies that will be implemented during Phase 3; and changes in services, educational model structures and design will result in permanent efficiencies and cost savings (implemented in FY’23 – FY’25)

Additional slides generally described the Curriculum Audit; the Student Assignment Master Plan, which may establish a new attendance area for the District; a Facilities Master Plan; a Demographic Study; the ERP-Finance/HR; and a Staffing Review.

Among the potential actions are “Close severely underutilized buildings.”

Some of slides that were part of the presentations at the community cafes are in the box below.

This was a major long-term plan that was announced to the community by Board President Tanyavutti and Finance Committee Chairman Hailpern on Jan. 27, 2021, and by two other Board members on Jan. 30.  

The RoundTable asked Ms. Tanyavutti and Mr. Hailpern if they discussed the content of the slides with District 65 administrators before the presentation and if they reached agreement on the content of the slides before the community cafe on Jan. 27. The RoundTable also asked who they had discussions with, how they held the discussions (e.g., by Zoom, by phone, by email, etc.) and to describe the discussions and decisions reached.

Mr. Hailpern did not answer the questions.

Ms. Tanyavutti said in the email dated March 23, “I also understand you had additional questions regarding recent presentations to the public conducted by myself and Board members Hailpern (conducted in English) and a separate presentation conducted by Board members Mendoza and Hernandez (conducted in Spanish). The District’s business office prepared the presentation slides. District administration had separate meetings with the Board members to discuss the slide presentation, but none of those meetings involved more than two Board members.”

The RoundTable asked Ms. Mendoza and Mr. Hernandez if they would comment on the preparation of the slides, the extent they participated in developing the plan to address the structural deficit that was outlined in the slides, whether members of the Board suggested ways to address the structural deficit or proposed revisions to the plan or the slides, and if there was general agreement on the plan outlined in the slides before it was presented.  

Neither of them responded.

The public was not given the opportunity to observe the discussions held by Ms. Tanyavutti, Mr. Hailpern, Ms. Mendoza, or Mr. Hernandez and administrators relating to the long-term plan, or to observe what suggestions or proposed changes were discussed, or what role members of the Board played in influencing or shaping the plan.

Subsequent Board and Finance Committee Meetings

At the Feb. 8  Finance Committee meeting, nine days after the second cafe, Kathy Zalewski, the District’s Business Manager, presented some of the same slides to members of the Finance Committee, including the one titled “Long-Term Plan to Eliminate Structural Deficit” and the one summarizing the three phases.  That meeting was attended by all members of the School Board.

Ms. Zalewski said, “I believe our Board shared the plan with the community already.” She described the plan and its three phases to eliminate the structural deficit.

After Ms. Zaleswki made her presentation, Mr. Hailpern asked if anyone had any questions.

No member of the School Board or Finance Committee asked a question.

No vote was taken on the plan.

Onn Feb. 8, Sarita Smith, Manager of Student Assignments at School District 65, laid out a process to revise the District’s student assignment system with the goals of modernizing the structure of the system, establishing new school boundaries, establishing an equitable selection process for magnet schools and programs, and establishing a school in the 5th Ward.

A Student Assignments Master Plan was one of the things mentioned in Phase 2 of the long-term plan presented at the community cafes.

On March 8, the District 65 Finance Committee discussed a list of proposed cuts in expenses for the 2021-22 school year (FY’22) that was prepared by Ms. Zalewski. The proposed cuts total $1.9 million. As indicated in the slides presented at the community cafes, the list includes a reduction of interventionists, savings due to a shift in bus transportation, and savings due to other efficiencies.

On March 22, the School Board discussed and unanimously approved the cuts totaling $1.9 million.

On March 22, Dr. Horton provided an update on the return to school plan for next fall. He said, “In the fall, any student that wants to return will be able to return for five days a week and will have a certified teacher in front of them.”

He went out of his way to add, “Our final return to school plans for the fall will be presented and voted on at May’s Board meeting.”

 

2 replies on “How Much of School District 65’s Business Is Being Conducted by School Board Members in Private Meetings with Administrators?”

  1. There are actually two disturbing aspects to the District 65 activity described here. The article focuses on only one: the failure of the Board to have its discussions about school reopening and key financial decisions in public. But this sentence leaped out at me: “Once Dr. Horton decided to make a substantive change in the reopening plan in consultation with Ms. Tanyavutti, the School Board had the right, under the Resolution, to discuss the change and to vote whether to affirm, modify or disapprove the change.” The Board has the same “right” concerning financial decisions. As to both issues, the Board’s actions suggest one of two things is occurring. Either (1) the Board is having discussions but doing everything they can think of to avoid having those discussions in public, or (2) the Board is declining to exercise its right — I would say its responsibility — to have these critical discussions at all. The first is an abdication of transparency. The second is an abdication of duty.

    Jonathan Baum

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