MDUSD board president asks superintendent to be more welcoming and transparent to press and public regarding meetings
Covering the Mt. Diablo school district is never dull. But, this week, I had to stand up to Superintendent Steven Lawrence to insist on my right to attend an Equity Advisory Team meeting where a committee was discussing the district’s draft plan to address the fact that the state has found it 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, it over-identifies African-Americans and Hispanic students for suspensions and expulsions, according to the state.
I heard a report about this at a recent special education Community Advisory Committee meeting, 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 Equity Advisory Team meeting, Lawrence quickly stood and said, “Ms. Harrington,” (while the meeting was in progress) and asked me to step outside.
He tried to prevent me from attending the meeting, saying that it wasn’t open to the public. I told him the CAC presentation had given me the impression that anyone could attend. He said he didn’t know who made that presentation, but that wasn’t his impression.
I also told him another district administrator has encouraged me to attend, saying it’s important for the community to know about the work the committee is doing. He said he didn’t know why that administrator would have invited me.
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.
He 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 on Monday.
Further, the superintendent said 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 decided to compromise. So, 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, true to my word, 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 in fact 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. She said she would ask him why he did that, since it is her hope to make meetings more transparent, not keep them secretive. She also said the district needs to change its mindset and allow the public to see how business is being conducted.
Hansen informed me today in an email that she spoke to the superintendent about his actions. Here is what 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 emailed information prior to 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.”
Somewhat ironically, the need to communicate better with the public also came up during the committee meeting. The draft report stated that one of the root causes of the over-identification is that some parents don’t trust the district and may not feel comfortable discussing their children’s needs with school staff. The draft plan emphasizes the need to warmly welcome parents (and the public), so they don’t have a negative impression of the district.
Bill Morones, director of secondary education, said: “For some of our parents, visiting a school is not a positive experience. When they walk on a campus, we want them to feel welcomed and loved and part of the Mt. Diablo family. One bad experience can turn them off.”
After the meeting, I tweeted about the superintendent’s attempt to exclude me. Recently elected Trustee Brian Lawrence followed up with this tweet: “(Thomas) Jefferson: ‘Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.’”
Do you agree with Hansen’s suggestions for greater district transparency?