For immediate release: Thursday, July 9, 2015
Contact: Leonie Haimson, firstname.lastname@example.org; 917-435-9329
NYC Public Advocate and Class Size Matters Defend the Public’s Right to Know and File Papers in Court to keep School Leadership Team Meetings Open
Today, Public Advocate Letitia James and Class Size Matters asked the New York Appellate Division to reject the attempt by the NYC Department of Education to close School Leadership Team meetings to the public despite a recent court order, in papers filed by attorneys from NY Lawyers for the Public Interest and Advocates for Justice. School Leadership Teams are bodies composed of half parents and half school staff, mandated by state law to develop Comprehensive Education Plans in each school which is then supposed to guide the school-based budget.
On April 16, 2015, Justice Peter H. Moulton of the State Supreme Court concluded in the case of Michael Thomas v. NYC Department of Education that the DOE’s decision to close these meetings to the public was “arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law.” Thomas, a retired teacher, had been prevented from attending an SLT meeting on Staten Island, and had sued the DOE. The Public Advocate and Class Size Matters subsequently intervened in the case as petitioners on the side of Mr. Thomas.
Justice Moulton’s decision for the petitioners and against the DOE was emphatic, based upon state law and Commissioner’s decisions that clearly demonstrate that SLTs are public bodies, have an important role to play in school governance, and thus are subject to open meetings law. State law and Chancellors regulations even require that the notice of all SLT meetings shall be made in a manner “consistent with the open meetings law.” As Justice Moulton concluded, “The proper functioning of public schools is a public concern, not a private concern limited to the families who attend a given public school.”
Yet following this decision, the DOE sent a message to principals on June 9, 2015, ordering them to close these meetings to the press and general public while their appeal of this decision could be heard.
Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters said, “Our case is based upon the fact that School Leadership Teams are charged with making important decisions and thus their deliberations should not be kept hidden from view. The DOE’s decision to close these meetings contradicts the formal guidance of the previous Chancellor, Dennis Walcott, as well as the ostensible claim by Chancellor Farina that she would like schools to collaborate more closely with parents and members of the community. The DOE’s rationale that SLTs are not public bodies because they have only advisory powers is particularly misguided, given that the authority of these teams is clearly laid out in state law. We would like to thank the attorneys from NY Lawyers for Public Interest and Advocates for Justice, for standing up for transparency and the public’s right to know.”
Attorney Mark Ladov of NY Lawyers for the Public Interest explained, “Transparency and public participation are critical to improving the education of NYC’s children. School Leadership Teams play an important role in public school governance, and their meetings must be open to the public and the press. The DOE’s decision to ignore New York’s open government laws, and the recent Court order, while this appeal is pending violates state law, and will cause irreparable harm to the public’s right to know if not remedied by the appellate court.”
"Every New Yorker has the right to know how our public schools work,” said Laura Barbieri, attorney at Advocates for Justice. “Current DOE policy violates that right by keeping the press and community locked out of School Leadership Meetings. How do the Chancellor and Mayor justify this policy? What information is being hidden from the public? The Court ordered these meetings to be open. The DOE refuses to comply. It is a shame they cannot see that secrecy breeds contempt. The public deserves better, better leadership and better accountability."
The original plaintiff in the lawsuit, retired teacher Michael Thomas pointed out, “Without transparency, a promise of accountability is a promise made with crossed fingers.”
Lisa Donlan, former President of Community Education Council 1, concluded: “For the DOE to require in its own regulations that SLTs provide public notice of the meetings but then not to allow the public to attend defies common sense. Rather than waste taxpayer dollars appealing this decision, I wish this administration would focus on improving schools with all the support they need from the whole community. We want our communities invested in our local schools. Barring members of the public from these decision-making meetings sends the wrong message. By closing these meetings, the DOE is eroding the circle of trust that this administration's framework is based upon. ”
The motion to vacate stay with exhibits filed today is posted here: http://wp.me/a1uzCk-1mi