What happened behind closed doors?
by Helen Gym on Apr 24 2009
Anytime the District has to rally a line-up of politicians to testify on its behalf, you know something’s up.
On Wednesday night, a group of political heavy-hitters opened the School Reform Commission meeting to urge the SRC to vote in favor of the District’s controversial strategic plan – Imagine 2014. Meanwhile CEO Arlene Ackerman issued dramatic statements that emphasized just how much pressure the District was exerting on the SRC for its vote:
"Tonight is the night that we demonstrate to [children] that we care . . . Tonight is the night the School Reform Commission acts on behalf of all of our children," Ackerman said during the meeting, which drew a capacity audience to the District's headquarters on Broad Street near Spring Garden.
And vote they did, 4-0 with hardly a question asked. Not one clarifying remark was made by a single commissioner to explain why each had voted on a plan that had generated lukewarm enthusiasm and enough controversy to result in last-minute plan adjustments, community meetings, a new budget, and political muscle.
Which makes one wonder: what happened behind closed doors to put the muzzle on the SRC?
The Commission’s penchant for secrecy is notorious, with hours-long “executive sessions” before every public meeting (this week, they spent several hours meeting in private before their public meeting). State law dictates that “discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision” must be made in public.
In 2007, Parents United for Public Education challenged the SRC around violating sunshine law standards following a controversial budget vote and the speculation by one commissioner that the SRC may have been deliberating illegally.
Two years later, education observers are raising eyebrows at the none-too-subtle way in which commissioners dutifully lined up behind this plan. Despite the considerable public controversy, neither of the two newly-appointed commissioners, chair Robert Archie nor Johnny Irizarry, asked one question about it during a public session. Either they’re not qualified for the job (obviously untrue) or something else is clearly going on when the public isn’t around.
In fact, the whole process leading up to Wednesday night’s vote didn’t help build public trust around the SRC, whose recent secretive appointment process baffles and alienates most parents, students, and staff.
- Earlier in the week, a number of community members including myself were initially barred from testifying about the strategic plan unless we declared whether we were in support of or in opposition to the plan. This was reversed only the day before the hearing.
- During registration, District officials now include reading rules to registered speakers that include grounds for removing someone from the room.
- Upon arrival at the meeting, speakers were handed a six-page document outlining the District’s policy on SRC meetings and told they had two minutes to address the commission. Formerly, speakers on unique topics could address the Commission for five minutes. A challenge by Parents United during the meeting granted speakers three minutes to address the SRC.
- Despite 90 minutes of often heart-felt public testimony from dozens of parents, teachers, students, librarians, and many others, not a single remark was made by a commissioner acknowledging the public concerns and how they planned to address those concerns.
For many in the audience – who have seen superintendents, reforms, strategic plans, and grand promises come and go – the impact of Wednesday’s vote was less about the strategic plan than it was a demonstration about how the District and SRC might handle difficult decisions. In its big moment at bat, both the SRC and District were forced to roll out the muscle and retreat into the back rooms in order to pass a key plan, despite public calls for a more thoughtful and detailed process.
At the end of the day, Parents United co-founder Gerald Wright summed up many observers feelings: “It seems like parents and communities are partners without any power.”
Read Parents United's statement on the District's Strategic Plan here.