Policy Committee Meeting: January 16, 2020

by Diane Payne

The Policy Committee has committed to review all School District policies, some decades old, and to revise, update or eliminate in order to reflect current needs and practices. Despite repeated requests over the past year,  copies of policies on the agenda were not available to members of the public in attendance. One binder with one set of the policies under consideration was placed on the desk outside the meeting room with instructions not to remove. There is no way to be in the meeting and review the policy revisions at the same time. APPS continues to ask the Board to provide copies of all meeting materials so that the “public engagement” they promise will be more than a slogan.

Present: Co-Chairs Maria McColgan and Joyce Wilkerson; Committee Members Julia Danzy, Chris McGinley, and Lee Huang. Board members Leticia Egea-Hinton and Angela McIver also attended.

Minutes of the November Policy Meeting were approved.

Staff Presentation

Naomi Wyatt, District Chief of Staff and Committee liaison for Superintendent William Hite, presented the Administration’s position on the policies in question. These policies include: Policy 005 Meetings; 249 Bullying/Cyberbullying; 317 Employee Conduct & Reporting Requirements; 317.1 Educator Misconduct (recommending that this policy be eliminated); 323 Tobacco Product use by Employees; 802 School Organization; 815.1 Internet and Media Presence; 820 Ratifications; 1000 Grant Management; 903 Public Participation in SRC Meetings. These policy changes and eliminations will be on the agenda for review at the February Action Meeting and voted on at the March Action Meeting.

Wyatt noted a number of additional policies whose reviews are being delayed.  Her PowerPoint listed those policies with the expected review date. All agenda information can be viewed on the District website: go to the Board of Education page and click on Meeting Materials.  Videos of all committee and action meetings can also be viewed on the Board page.

Board members had questions about Policy 206, Assignment within the District.   Any family can apply to a school out of their catchment area. Board members expressed concerns–most notably a growing racial disparity–about the result of admitting an increasing number of students to out-of-catchment schools.  A lack of clarity in District policy has led to school-based decisions that did not always reflect an unbiased decision process. Wyatt assured Board members that all such applications would be processed through 440 and not through the individual schools, but that did not fully address those concerns.  McGinley noted his ongoing concerns that the same type of manipulation of student populations practiced by charter schools could be playing out in District schools as well. Wyatt acknowledged that the out-of-catchment assignments have no mechanism to control for racial diversity because it is done through a simple lottery.   Concerns about the District’s policies and procedures for creating and maintaining diverse schools, ethnically as well as in achievement levels, have been raised by many speakers at Board meetings, including parent activist Stephanie King. Although enforcing out-of-catchment admission decisions at 440 is a step in the right direction, shouldn’t the District be putting more effort into exploring the concerns raised by speakers like Ms. King who have repeatedly laid out for the Board examples of the inequality found so frequently in our District school populations?  Wyatt also noted that consideration would be given to out of catchment applications only if school capacity exists.

Wyatt further noted that Policy 206 is on hold due to the ongoing Comprehensive School Review Process (CSPR).  The Hite administration’s hope is that CSPR feedback on this issue can guide policy amendments. McGinley referred to the desegregation lawsuit brought almost 40 years ago and settled during the Arlene Ackerman administration. He asked whether the District’s Chief Counsel could review this settlement to see if there is any language or District commitments that we should be mindful of when re-working this policy.  Wyatt agreed to investigate with District counsel.

Board members also discussed Policy 249, Bullying/Cyberbullying.  Wyatt said that language was revised after hearing testimonies from the attorneys from the Education Law Center (ELC).  This includes language about who is responsible for handling and reporting bullying complaints. Some of this language was revised just days ago so it is not visible in the agenda materials.  It will be updated before the Action Meeting. Wyatt reported that the Office of Student Support Services will post yearly the number of verified complaints of bullying.

Public Speakers

APPS co-founder Lisa Haver again objected to the Board’s failure to provide adequate meeting materials at both action meetings and committee meetings.  She noted that the Board’s decision (for which no explanation was given, despite repeated requests) to eliminate all paper copies of Action Items (except for those in three binders at the back of the room with warnings NOT to remove) makes it impossible for robust public engagement since information, language, and specifics can only be searched through electronic devices (making a public disengagement assumption that all individuals have access to such technology in the meeting). Haver asked the Board members to add a clause to their meeting policy stating that, as part of the Board’s commitment to public engagement, adequate meeting materials will be provided at all public meetings. Some of the language around public engagement has been relegated to the District  procedures on their website. But, as Haver noted, past experience has illustrated that procedures can be changed from meeting to meeting on a whim when formal language is not included in official policy.

Education Law Center (ELC) attorney Kristina Moon spoke in support of more robust language in Policy 249 to support the victims of bullying.  She acknowledged the positive changes made by the District in support of ELC’s advocacy but did give an example of a bullying victim who simply wanted to transfer to a different school to escape the negative experience in his school.  Prohibiting this student from transferring further victimized the student who ended up resisting even going to school. District staff member Rachel Holtzman did say that the District would look at case-by-case issues and make independent decisions about transfer requests.

Following Moon’s testimony, questioning by Board members of District staff examined the District’s position on transfers.  Holtzman noted that the District position of not including transfers in the Policy is based on research that supports the benefits of continuity in educational settings.  Holtzman expressed staff concerns that if established in policy it would encourage a rush to transfers, further harming the continuity of educational settings.

Some Board members expressed concern about why a victim would be in a setting that continued to victimize them and why school-based administrators and staff would not be held accountable for failing to address these situations. Chris McGinley, citing his experience on “both sides” of the issue as parent and administrator, did interject  that unfortunately what often happens is that staff and administrators can be trying many strategies. He noted that efforts not working can appear as no effort at all when the problem still exists. If what the school tries does not work, then the parent and child would be justified in seeking further recourse. According to District staff,  principals have been trained on bully prevention and reporting issues. The District is in the process of training staff as well.

APPS member Diane Payne commented on Policy 611 Procurement on the Board’s January 30th Action Item agenda. This policy puts the purchase method for emergency purchases into the District’s Procurement Manual.  Payne pointed out that the District contended in a 2018 lawsuit, brought by a vendor claiming that he had been cheated as a result of the District’s failure to follow its own policy, that it “…maintains it has no obligation to follow city procurement rules, or its own procurement guidelines, in awarding professional services contracts…”.   In light of the District view, shouldn’t procurement decisions be committed to policy and not left to individual decisions made by staff members in different departments?  Payne also addressed Policy 249 Bullying. Payne noted that the actions of one student with behavioral issues, sometimes becoming out of control, can disrupt education for the entire class. If policy does not effectively address these issues, it simply devolves into politically correct verbiage with no real help to students, staff, or families.