This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.
This week, I had to stand up to Mt. Diablo Superintendent Steven Lawrence to insist on my right to attend an Equity Advisory Team meeting where a committee discussed a draft plan to address the fact that the state has found that the district significantly over-identifies African-American students for special education, labeling many "emotionally disturbed." This is an important issue that the district has been working on for more than a year. In addition, the district over-identifies African-Americans and Hispanic students for suspensions and expulsions, according to the state.
The issue was discussed at a recent special education Community Advisory Committee meeting I attended and where the presenter invited other members of the committee to attend the Tuesday Equity Advisory Team meeting.
But when I started to walk into the Tuesday meeting, Lawrence quickly stood and asked me to step outside.
He tried to prevent me from attending the meeting, saying that it wasn't open to the public. Lawrence said it wouldn't be good for just any member of the public to drop in and start making suggestions, since they wouldn't have been to all of the other meetings and wouldn't have reviewed all of the materials. I pointed out it would be easier for the public to review the documents if they were posted online.
Lawrence said the district can't possibly post agendas and minutes for all of the various committees online because there are so many. But he said the public could see the finished report when it is presented to the board Monday.
Lawrence argued that it was a "working meeting" and it wouldn't be good if I was there videotaping or blogging, since it might inhibit discussion. When I saw how intent he was on turning me away, I asked him if I could attend the meeting if I agreed not to videotape or live blog, although I said I might blog later. He said if I just sat there and took notes, it would be all right for me to go in.
So, I sat and took notes on my laptop. I didn't videotape, live blog or tweet. But I was surprised when I looked at the agenda and saw that it was a public meeting after all and that recording was allowed.
Under "introductions," the agenda stated: "Please notify the audience during introductions if you are recording the meeting and let us know if this is your first time attending the Equity Advisory Team." The agenda also allowed for "Public Comment" from people who were not on the Equity Advisory Team.
So why was he trying to bar me from the meeting? After the meeting, I happened to see Board President Cheryl Hansen and relayed my frustrations to her about the superintendent's attempt to exclude me. Hansen said she would ask. She also said it is her hope to make meetings more transparent, not keep them secretive. She said the district needs to change its mindset and allow the public to see how business is being conducted.
Hansen informed me Wednesday in an email that she spoke to the superintendent about his actions. She wrote:
"I followed up with the superintendent about the incident with you yesterday. I told him that we have to find ways to be more transparent and welcoming to the public and the press. It's just better PR (Public Relations). I suggested that the district:
1. Post all meetings on the district's online calendar and, when people click on the posting, they would be able to see agendas and other information showing the purpose of the committees and what they're discussing. Relevant documents/reports could actually be linked there as well.
2. Take the initiative to inform and actually invite the press to our public meetings.
3. Make sure committee members are e-mailed information before the meetings so they can prepare ahead of time and make meetings more productive.
Thanks for letting me know what happened because it helps keep the focus on more transparency and accountability."
The need to communicate better with the public also came up during the meeting. The draft report said some parents don't trust the district and may not feel comfortable talking to school staff.
Do you agree with Hansen's suggestions?