St. Paul School Board Shores up Public Trust… by Meeting in Secret

Did you hear the one about the school board members who, realizing they had a public trust problem, decided to fix it by meeting in private?

State officials have advised St. Paul Public Schools that board members may conduct closed-door meetings with school administrators and teachers union leaders to work on “trust, relationships, communication and collaborative problem solving.”

According to its petition to the state, after a year of tension and chaos the district wants to “strengthen community engagement and commitment among [the Board], district administrators, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), parent advisory councils (PACs), students, and other stakeholders.”

They’re calling it—wait for it—the Collaborative Public Engagement Project.

The notion that these private confabs don’t violate the state’s Open Meetings Law is astonishing—and debatable. But it’s positively gobsmacking that the school board, whose leadership is all in favor of the meetings, thinks that more secrecy will strengthen community buy-in.

That year of tension and chaos is a good starting point for unpacking this. Last fall, several months after a locked-and-loaded St. Paul DFL endorsing convention, a new school board majority was elected. The board newcomers ran as a Caucus for Change slate, organized, financed and positioned by the teachers union, as the true champions of equity in schools.

The months leading up to the election were characterized by social media bullying, racially inflammatory posturing by caucus leaders and a veritable tsunami of invective aimed at then-Superintendent Valeria Silva, whose race equity work was at the center of the maelstrom.

At the board meeting where they were sworn in, the board members presented Silva with a very specific—and humiliating–to-do list. And not one prepared in public, it’s worth noting. Six weeks later, those same new board members agreed to a new teacher contract that included $21 million in raises, among other costly concessions. They then expressed their displeasure with the superintendent’s proposals, plural, for closing a budget shortfall of $15 million this year and $24 million.

The ensuing months were characterized by racially inflamed community debate, culminating in the discovery of a thinly fictionalized blog in which a high school teacher demonized students with names like Le’Vante, Jai’Sean and Meng for “whoring trains” and fighting. Parents complained. Silva suspended the teacher. Board meetings were brought to a halt by outraged parents and teachers on either side of the issue.

And then in June, the board fired Silva. Since it was unable to fire her for cause, the move cost more than $750,000. Longtime board member Jean O’Connell—not part of the Caucus slate—resigned in protest over the way the decision was made.

“I am personally taken aback by the way the current chair and treasurer of this board have worked in secret and frozen other members of this board out of major issues, up to and including the decision to buy out the Superintendent’s contract,” she wrote in a statement. “Not only is this questionable governance, it is terrible leadership.”

Fast forward to Nov. 4, when the state Department of Administration issued an advisory opinion asserting that the board could hold closed-door meetings with mediators because “official business” would not be on the agenda.

Topics that are on the agenda include creating an environment in which administrators, SPFT, Board members, and parents “feel valued, heard and respected; development of a shared understanding of roles and responsibilities of administrators, the board, teachers, and other school staff; clarity around decision making including the role of administrators, SPFT, the board, and the community–especially parents”; and “how to define and implement the principle of equity.”

A couple of points:

How rich is the irony conjured by the fact that this last agenda item—the definition of equity—is the essential disagreement that sparked the Caucus’ angry campaigns?

This non-business agenda sounds an awful lot like the process-establishing work the Minneapolis School Board—no bastion of collaborative sensibility—considers official business and does in public at semi-annual retreats.

And finally, how gut-churning is it that the plan to meet behind closed doors was brought to light by James Eli Shiffer, who supervises the data reporting and watchdog teams at the Star Tribune and who happens to serve on the board of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, an organization comprised of volunteers who are concerned with open government.

(Side note: The “Full Disclosure” column Shiffer penned about the state’s advisory opinion is possibly the most incisive bit of education reporting and analysis served up in Minnesota legacy media in, oh… let’s go with years. Too bad said news organizations consider education a “soft” beat and thus unworthy of a watchdog like Shiffer.)

Minnesota’s open meetings law spells out several exceptions to the requirement that government entities like school boards do their work before the public, but none seems to so much as approach dealing with a general inability to work and play nicely together.

And indeed the statute requires a record of closed-door discussions about contract negotiations eventually be made available to the public: “The open meeting law permits a public body to hold a closed meeting to discuss strategy and proposals for labor negotiations conducted under the Public Employment Labor Relations Act. The statute specifies procedures for tape-recording of these meetings, and for the recordings to become public when negotiations are completed.”

Finally, the DOA’s rationale—that the privacy might help board members learn to communicate with their constituents—seems to fly in the face of the spirit of the government transparency law: “Indeed, to the extent that the training sessions improve council members’ skills at effective communication, it seems that the training sessions will provide the public with a more complete knowledge of municipal business and the reasons why decisions are made.”

Maybe board members want to revisit whether they truly believe the Collaborative Public Engagement Project will re-engage the public and restore its trust.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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