Tuesday, August 25, 2015
DOE makes false claims in response to our lawsuit to keep School Leadership Team meetings public
On Sunday, Sue Edelman wrote in the NY Post about how the DOE has made misleading claims in court in their attempt to keep School Leadership Team meetings closed to the public. School Leadership Teams, made up of half parents and half school staff, have an important role to play in school planning and budgeting, and thus it is important to keep their deliberations as transparent and accountable as possible.
To briefly recap: Last January, the Public Advocate Letitia James and Class Size Matters intervened in a lawsuit against the DOE, originally filed by a retired NYC teacher named Michael Thomas, who had been barred from an SLT meeting. Speaking for CSM, we decided to intervene in the interests of accountability and transparency, but also as the DOE’s argument based its argument on yet another false claim: that SLT’s were only advisory, though state law and Chancellor’s regs clearly state that they have ultimate authority over each school’s Comprehensive Education Plan, which is also supposed to inform the school’s budget.
In March, Judge Moulton ruled in our favor, partly on this basis and his decision pointed out that even if they were solely advisory, SLT’s have a specific governance role established in state law and thus are a public body subject to open meetings law. The state law also specifically says that SLTs must announce meetings in advance “as in open meetings law,” so the state’s intent on this is obvious. Yet the DOE announced they would appeal this decision, and in the meantime, told principals to close these meetings to anyone outside the “school community”, which presumably means anyone who was not a parent or employee of the school.
In July, we filed papers in the Appellate court, asking them to keep the meetings open until the DOE’s appeal could be heard.
On August 6, the city filed a cross motion, arguing that that it would take an “enormous effort”, and a “Herculean” task to open these meetings to the public in the interim, at a “substantial cost.” Opening these meetings would be “a daunting and impracticable task” that would jeopardize privacy and the safety of children, and represent “a sea change.” It would “alter a status quo that has existed for more than two decades”, as “SLT meetings have never before been open to members of the press and the general public.”
Yet none of these claims are true. As our reply brief pointed out, from their inception, the DOE encouraged schools to keep these meetings open. The “Green Book”, or the SLT manual first put out by Chancellor Crew in 1998 and then again by Chancellor Klein in 2002, clearly states, “Each school leadership team should determine whether team meetings will be open to the public…teams are strongly encouraged to invite open attendance…”
Then, during Dennis Walcott’s Chancellorship, who led the DOE between April 2011 and December 2013, the DOE correctly pointed out that these meetings MUST be open to the public – including in a DOE power point that is still online.
In addition, in an article printed in the Riverdale Review on January 3, 2013, the reporter Tess Mcrae told how she contacted the DOE after she had been kicked out of an SLT meeting at PS 24 by principal Donna Connelly. After the reporter contacted the DOE spokesperson, David Pena, he first said he was “under the impression” that they are closed meetings, but after checking, Pena got back to the reporter, saying on the record that “Generally, these meetings are open to the public except if an executive session is being held.”
For some reason, in the spring of 2013, officials reversed the practice and policy of nearly twenty years, by ordering principals to close SLT meetings, which sadly the Chancellor has continued to maintain in and out of court – despite the decision of the State Supreme Court.
Our papers make short shrift of the DOE’s other false claims – that opening these meetings would be enormously costly, and put children in danger. You can check them out here.
See also the article in yesterday’s NY Times that mentions our lawsuit as one of several involving important issues in which Public Advocate James has challenged the city. We are hoping for a favorable order from the Appellate Court in four to six weeks.