PEORIA, IL -- Public comments at the April 14 Peoria District 150 School Board meeting raised many questions that were never answered.
There were two opportunities for the public to comment, first the usual session, then a public hearing on the honorable dismissal of 66 teachers, who must be laid off after the school year ends because the board is uncertain how much money will be allocated from the state for next year.
That hearing brought science teachers to the podium who said they wanted the layoffs to have a face. Two teach science at Manual Academy, and a third teaches engineering there, and has a degree in engineering and a Master's degree in education.
"We are struggling with keeping teachers," said Laurie Ettinger who works with the Manual teachers. She said there's a 60 percent to 85 percent turnover in science teachers at Manual, and a middle school class lacks a certified science teacher now.
This prompted me to speak, to ask the board how those to get pink slips were selected, and whether funds could be transferred from other accounts to pay for teachers. The board has spent almost a million dollars buying property near Peoria High School, and wastes other money as shown on its credit cards.
Activist Terry Knapp asked why administrators were not laid off in place of teachers.
No answers were forthcoming when the board's time to comment came up.
Other commenters focused on the Change150 issues and Charter Oak School.
"I'm tired of everyone in the press telling that we are a crazed bunch of parents," said one. "It is not the same school as it was. We parents don't have a voice any more. Get off your power trip and listen to the public. The election spoke volumes."
Knapp commented that Freedom of Information Act responses show that there were 10 testing infractions since 2010, including three at Franklin School, whose principal was transferred to Charter Oak to take the place of its principal who was transferred out, and is now on sick leave.
Brenda Wilson said that her comments at a previous meeting about problems on the playground at Charter Oak brought instant retaliation, "a slap in the face."
That happened when the principal enacted a restrictive policy on parent visits.
Title One schools are supposed to follow a protocol on policy changes that involve parents, but that never happened, she said, and no one will answer her questions about it. A lawyer told her the policy seems illegal, especially in a public school, she said. "Elections don't lie," she added.
In her response, Supt. Grenita Lathan said, "It's not about one school or inidividual. We need healing and need to move forward. It's not meant to harm anyone. A lot of mean things have been said."
Lathan seems not to understand that layoffs and transfers can destroy careers and family life, which causes terrible harm. The young science teachers likely will find other jobs, disrupting the stability of their school, while the principal who is targeted may have lost his career. For essentially nothing.
She was right that "mean things" have been said recently -- with Charter Oak parents called "racists," and "white elitists," Knapp called "a liar," unverified accounts of threats made Those targeted by these comments rightly protested.
Here are recordings of the comments, in two parts:
Activist Sharon Crews focused on the lack of communication between the board and the public, including the inconsistency in meeting times, the inconsistency in comment periods, and the board's lack of discussion at meetings. See her comments written below.
-- Elaine Hopkins
Here are the comments from Crews:
This board has steadily decreased the opportunities for the public to communicate with them and for board members to communicate with each other publicly.
Speakers once had two opportunities to address the board—five minutes for action items and five minutes for any topic. After March 2010 individuals speak only once.
The second change effectively limited the number of speakers by asking speakers to fill out cards before the meeting starts.
Speakers once lined up, waiting their turn to speak. Frequently, people would decide to speak spontaneously when they heard something to which they wanted to respond. Now newcomers, unaware of the cards and/or the deadline, find they have wasted their time. Speakers are forced to come early and sit through 30 minutes to an hour of “feel good” presentations, which precede the public comment time.
Thirdly, the board stopped televising its meetings. After a considerably long period, the board resumed access through U-Stream but did not air public comments. The current airing of the whole meeting on U-Stream and YouTube is better but not as open to the public as TV is.
The fourth and probably the worst change was to limit the number of times board members and the superintendent communicate with each other publicly. The board traditionally held two regular meetings a month and later one Committee of the Whole meeting—all open to the public.
As of November 2011, one regular meeting was eliminated. The public still can speak for five minutes at the first monthly meeting but for the second meeting, speakers still must fill out a card before the meeting starts but can speak for only two minutes at the very end. Before 2010 an individual’s speaking time totaled 20 minutes a month—now reduced to 7 minutes.
Policy states that no official action—voting—takes places at Committee of the Whole meetings, which are for discussion only. However, the Committee of the Whole meeting has become just another regular meeting—with the only difference being speakers at the end for only two minutes.
Also, the first meeting of the month starts at 6:30 but the second meeting starts at 6:00--the result is that people, confused by the time change, often arrive after the meeting starts—too late to fill out a card.
Traditionally, board members voted on action items only after expressing their opinions, presenting pros and cons, and even arguing among themselves. They let their constituents know why they were casting “yea” or “nay” votes.
Now the board comes to the table with minds already made up. Recently, Martha Ross stated that the public doesn’t realize that a lot of things go on before the meeting. She said, “We ask questions, get documents; we know about things long before we get here.” If, indeed, “a lot goes on elsewhere,” you are violating the Open Meetings Act.
As it is, the whole agenda is read verbatim and then, with little or no discussion, the vote is taken. Rarely is there anything but a 7-0 vote. The main part of the meeting often takes less than a half hour. Is that communication and is it legal?
Three times this year, three sets of parents have come to the podium to address the board in public because their attempts to be heard privately by central administrators, including Dr. Lathan, were unsuccessful. Two sets of parents were not allowed to speak because they did not know about the deadline for cards and had to return to the next board meeting before they could be heard.
Laura, we did listen when you stated that someone from Change150 harassed you and threatened your child and that the group waged a dirty campaign. I have seen the police report which was not filed until after the election. You should not have been harassed or threatened, but you leveled your charges at a large group of people. How do you know this person has any ties to Change 150, which has no membership list? And define what was dirty about the campaign.
By the way, teachers and principals are harassed and threatened every day (and not always by students). How strong a stand have you taken in favor of meaningful consequences for students who threaten teachers, probably on a daily basis in District 150? Do you favor reporting all such incidents to the police? I trust that you will support teachers who follow your example.
Lathan’s standard speech seems to convey that the public has a right to disagree, that she is sorry that people disagree or do not understand, but they have to live with board decisions. I don’t believe the public trusts your decisions or your Chicago PR firm’s version of the truth. After tonight’s reduction in force, I assume we will not hear the words, “We are in the black.”- 30 -