Set out below is a letter submitted by Suni Kartha regarding an article written by Larry Gavin entitled “How Much of School District 65’s Business Is Being Conducted by School Board Members in Private Meetings with Administrators?”
Below her letter is a response prepared by Larry Gavin.
Suni Kartha’s March 30 Letter
This letter is in response to Larry Gavin’s March 27, 2021 opinion article entitled “How Much of School District 65’s Business Is Being Conducted by School Board Members in Private Meetings with Administrators?” The assertions in this piece are misguided, at best, and deliberately prejudicial, at worst. In either case, this is another in a spate of articles from and decisions by this publication that move it far from its stated goal of providing in-depth and objective coverage of local matters, specifically on matters related to District 65.
I am a member of the District 65 school board, completing my 8th year of service to this community. To be clear, this response is from me and is not on behalf of the District 65 school board. During my tenure, I have served with many different board members and under several board presidents. I also served three years as school board president. To my knowledge, the start of my board presidency marked the start of Mr. Gavin’s use of this publication to continuously question routine board practices, such as regular meetings between superintendent and board leadership and briefing board members on issues in advance of public discussions of those issues, as unusual, unethical, and in violation of good governance. This is even more curious given previous reporting in this publication as well as the composition of the RoundTable’s board and advisors.
In Mr. Gavin’s March 22, 2017 article entitled “District 65 School Board Approves Contingency Plan in the Event the Referendum Fails,” Mr. Gavin wrote, “[b]etween Feb. 28 and March 3, Dr. Goren said, individual meetings were held with all Board members to review the details of the recommended reductions.” Similarly, during the March 13 working board meeting when the proposed reductions were first publicly discussed, Dr. Goren noted that board members had been given pre-reads and an opportunity to provide private feedback on the plan as early as November 2016. To my knowledge, Mr. Gavin never questioned Dr. Goren or then-board president Candance Chow about these statements or raised concerns about board discussions taking place outside of public meetings.
As mentioned above, I have served with a number of different board members and under several board presidents, and I can attest that the behavior that Mr. Gavin seeks to label as nefarious is quite far from it. In fact, Mr. Gavin could easily confirm this by conferring with his own Board of Directors, which includes a former District 65 board president and vice-president (Tracy Quattrocki), and his Advisory Committee, which includes two former District 65 board presidents (Katie Bailey and Candance Chow), a former District 65 board vice-president (Richard Rykhus), a former DIstrict 65 board member (Omar Brown), and a former District 65 superintendent (Paul Goren). I served with all of them and know that they have first-hand knowledge of the types of meetings that took place between board and superintendent outside of public meetings (including weekly and sometimes even daily, to my knowledge, meetings or conversations between superintendent and board leadership) and that they would agree that those meetings were routine and necessary to keep board members apprised of district business and for board leadership to effectively do its work of leading the board. If they believe there is a difference between the types of meetings they found permissible when they were on the board and what is happening now, I invite them to publicly and openly describe those differences.
Finally, Mr. Gavin implies in his article that these meetings violate the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“OMA”) and that board decisions are made in the private meetings. Both of these assertions are factually incorrect. The OMA requires that any meeting of a public body discussing public business and including a majority of a quorum (in this case, three board members) must be held in public and comply with the notice and public comment requirements of the OMA. As both Ms. Tanyavutti and I and our board attorneys have repeatedly explained to Mr. Gavin, none of the meetings he has raised concerns about have violated OMA, either in practice or in spirit. These meetings never include more than two board members (again, as has been regular practice for at least the eight years that I have served on the board), and while updates may be given during these meetings on what administrative decisions are being made prior to public communication of those decisions, no board decisions have ever been made without public discussion including the full board. If Mr. Gavin has specific knowledge or evidence of a private board vote, then I invite him to share that.
I am dismayed by the Evanston RoundTable’s biased reporting against the current District 65 school board and administration. Many members of our community continue to rely on this publication for accurate and unbiased news reporting of local events, and I believe it is worth asking what has changed in recent years with regards to Mr. Gavin’s attitude toward District 65. Certainly, it is worrisome that decisions about what to publish appear to be influenced by former school board members and staff who might have personal issues with current board members and whose similar actions while they were active in District 65 were not questioned even once by Mr. Gavin or this paper. It is also noteworthy that this publication’s increased scrutiny of the board coincided with a leadership turnover that saw a current RoundTable Advisory Committee member’s removal from the board presidency. Finally, if we apply the RoundTable’s own charge to its Advisory Committee to “ensure the paper is addressing issues with a lens on social justice and equity,” then I would be remiss if I failed to note that the current board is the most racially diverse school board in this town’s history and that the board presidents whose actions and integrity Mr. Gavin repeatedly questions are women of color.
In these times when local journalism is more important than ever, it is critical that we demand high accountability from local reporters and seek objective, unbiased sources of information. At least where District 65 is concerned, it does not appear that the Evanston RoundTable deserves to be this community’s choice.
Larry Gavin’s March 31 Response
Suni Kartha, a District 65 School Board member, submitted the above letter relating to an article I wrote titled, “How Much of School District 65’s Business Is Being Conducted by School Board Members in Private Meetings with Administrators?”
I posted my article on the RoundTable’s online site on March 27. It is available here. The article noted that 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 article said, “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.”
The article goes on to discuss these issues in more detail.
The genesis of the article was a statement made by School Board Vice President Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan at a candidate’s forum on March 17. At the forum she said she participated in a decision-making process about reopening the schools. I was not aware that members of the School Board were involved in a decision-making process to reopen the schools, so I followed up with questions, reviewed documents, and wrote the article.
I believe the community has a right to know what role members of the Board played in the decisions relating to re-opening the schools and developing a plan to eliminate the structural deficit.
Ms. Kartha’s letter does not point to any statements in the article that are not accurate. In fact, the statements in the article are quotes of statements made by Board President Anya Tanyavutti, Ms. Lindsay-Ryan, and Finance Committee Chair Joey Hailpern. It is also based on documents prepared by the District and posted on the District’s website, such as the Resolution adopted by the Board on Aug. 10, 2020, relating to the reopening of the schools and the District’s Long Term Plan to Eliminate the Structural Deficit.
I asked Ms. Lindsay-Ryan, Mr. Hailpern, and Board members Rebeca Mendoza and Sergio Hernandez to provide comments on various aspects of the article.
They did not do so.
Contrary to a statement made by Ms. Kartha, I did not assert that the Board violated the Open Meetings Act, but I did quote a portion of Section 1 of the OMA which states the intent of the Act, and I expressly pointed out that the requirement of holding open meetings under the OMA applies if a majority of a quorum of a public body meets to discuss public business. The article quoted Ms. Tanyavutti that no meeting held between administrators and members of the School Board involved more than two Board members.
The Claim of Treating School Boards Differently
Rather than disputing the accuracy of anything in the article, Ms. Kartha says that prior School Boards had similar practices, and she claims I am treating the current School Board differently than prior School Boards.
If a prior School Board did not practice transparency, that does not mean that a current School Board cannot and should not be held accountable for its actions.
Moreover, I quoted Ms. Tanyavutti’s statement that the discussions between her, the Board leadership team, and Dr. Horton regarding reopening the schools “conform to past practice of communications between former Superintendents and with Board officers.” The article reported that justification for the discussions.
I am not aware that prior School Boards engaged in the same conduct to the same extent as the current School Board. Ms. Kartha points to one instance where an article of mine referred to one-on-one meetings between the Superintendent at the time and members of the School Board in which they were briefed on proposed budget cuts prior to the April 2017 Referendum. According to Ms. Kartha, my article pointed that out.
But importantly, leading up to the Referendum, the School Board and Finance Committee had many lengthy meetings at which various scenarios were discussed in public and people in the community had an opportunity to comment before decisions were made. Many community members did, in fact, comment.
In this case, a long-term plan to address the structural deficit simply appeared and was presented to the community as the decided plan in two community cafés, one held on Jan. 27 and another on Jan. 30. The plan was not previously discussed in public by the School Board or the Finance Committee. Ms. Tanyavutti admitted that administrators discussed the plan with Board members before it was presented at the community cafés, adding that no meeting had more than two Board members.
Why the Focus on Transparency?
Ms. Kartha questions my motives in focusing on transparency of the School Board under her and Ms. Tanyavutti’s leadership. Written statements they made in April 2019 drew my attention to this issue.
Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti submitted letters in April 2019 stating they were candidates for President and Vice President of the School Board.
In those letters they said they established a Board “leadership team” – consisting of themselves – to conduct monthly meetings with top administrators of the District and with top leaders of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union). In her letter, Ms. Tanyavutti said these monthly meetings were “to provide proactive opportunities to discuss need and shared solutions.”
The letters also said the “leadership team” was conducting weekly supervision meetings with the Superintendent.
After reading the April 2019 candidacy letters, I searched for the April 2018 candidacy letters and saw that the leadership team had been holding monthly meetings starting sometime before April 2018.
To my knowledge, forming a leadership team and holding monthly and weekly meetings to discuss the District’s business and reach “shared solutions” was unheard of.
I wrote an article that was published in the RoundTable in October 2019 regarding this practice. And it was triggered by statements made by Ms. Kartha and Ms. Tanyavutti in their candidacy letters.
I also filed a request for review with the Attorney General’s Office to review whether the “leadership team” is a “subsidiary body” of the School Board and subject to the OMA and asked the Attorney General to declare that the leadership team’s meetings violated the OMA. That request for review has been fully briefed and is still awaiting decision. The District has opposed the request, and asserted that the leadership team is not a subsidiary body of the School Board.
Since then, I have raised questions about the 2 x 2 meetings proposed by Mr. Hailpern at a Nov. 19 Finance Committee meeting, which proposed that two members of the School Board meet with two administrators to gather information to use in addressing the projected deficits. Ms. Tanyavutti said in an email to the RoundTable that members of the Board would meet with top administrators and report conclusions reached in those meetings.
Thus, the plan was to reach conclusions in those private meetings.
In January 2021, I filed an FOIA Request with District 65 asking for records reflecting or relating to communications between five top administrators of the District and members of the School Board that referred or related to two topics: 1) the reopening of the schools for in-person learning, and 2) addressing the projected deficits. The request covered a span of about seven weeks.
The District’s response was that there were potentially 500 emails – YES, 500 emails – responsive to each request, and it objected to producing them on grounds it would be unduly burdensome to so.
I subsequently filed a much more limited FOIA request on these topics and the District said there are six responsive emails that the District has refused to produce. The request asked for emails between the Superintendent and all members of the Board, between the Superintendent and the President or Vice President of the Board, or between certain School Board members and other School Board members.
The District asserted the emails are exempt under the deliberative process privilege and said the emails contain “deliberations” and that “policies or actions were formulated within the withheld communications.”
By the District’s own admission, these six emails appear to be private communications involving School Board members and that “policies or actions were formulated within the withheld communications.”
The Claim of Racism
Ms. Kartha implies that my articles are motivated by racial animus with this sentence: “… I would be remiss if I failed to note that the current board is the most racially diverse board in this town’s history and that the board’s presidents whose actions and integrity Mr. Gavin repeatedly questions are women of color.”
This implication is patently false. I have worked for racial justice for more than 50 years. Among other things, I served on the District 65 Long Range Planning Committee in 1990-1992 and drafted the goal to close the achievement gap within 10 years which was unanimously adopted, and I helped shape the proposed strategies to do so. I have published many articles and editorials published in the RoundTable urging the School Boards to adopt high expectations for Black and Latinx students and to implement initiatives to close the achievement and opportunity gaps by raising up achievement of Black and Latinx students.
Unfortunately, the data show that lower percentages of students met college readiness benchmarks in reading and math in 2019 than in 2012. And a recent joint study conducted by Districts 65 and 202 shows that only 41% of Black students and 45% of Latinx students are meeting proficiency standards in reading when they enter ETHS.
I believe the School Board should be held accountable for the academic performance of Black and Latinx students in the District.
I also believe the public is entitled to know what discussions are being held in private by School Board members, and what decisions are being made in private by School Board members, and in my mind this applies whether the discussions are being held by one, two, or more than two members of the School Board.
And it is not racist to hold a School Board accountable. Equity in fact requires accountability.