Does East Lansing’s School Board Get a Passing Grade on Transparency?

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Keeping things transparent takes work.

Concerns about transparency in East Lansing Public Schools’ governance and administration came to a head last Tuesday when the School Board failed to adequately inform the public of its meeting plans and then spent the majority of its hour-long meeting in closed session.

ELi’s Managing Editor, Alice Dreger, criticized the situation in the public comment period, and has since received some assurances that things should get better.

Michigan law requires advance public notice of School Board meetings. Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order that amended the Open Meetings Act to permit online meetings stipulated that public bodies with an online presence should provide electronic notices.

The most recent meeting of the ELPS School Board on May 26 was not posted on the ELPS homepage nor could members of the ELi team find notice anywhere else at all.

ELi only knew of the meeting because Dreger was notified of it by Board members Chris Martin and Nichole Martin (no relation). ELi then made the meeting information public

Recently, two meetings of the School Board’s Personnel Committee—one in late April or early May and a second on May 19—were not advertised to the public. Nor was the most recent meeting of the Finance Committee, last Wednesday at 2 p.m. Both of those committees are run by Board Treasurer Kath Edsall, who told ELi that she had requested notice of the meetings be posted on the ELPS website.

ELi was informed of the scheduled Finance Committee meeting by Secretary Chris Martin, who sent the agenda for the upcoming meeting and minutes from the previous meeting to Dreger. Chris Martin and Nichole Martin have both steadily provided us with upcoming meeting information.

Closed session at the last full School Board meeting

After beginning the noon meeting on May 26, the Board almost immediately went into closed session without any explanation as to what would be discussed, referring only to an unspecified communication covered by attorney-client privilege.

We believe that the trustees discussed a legal opinion issued by Thrun Law Firm regarding whether the School Board must provide an evaluation of Superintendent Dori Leyko’s performance this year.

That’s because, at the May 11 School Board meeting, Edsall read a prepared statement, declaring that the Personnel Committee had decided an evaluation of Leyko would not happen. President Erin Graham questioned if the Committee had the authority to make this decision and noted that the Committee had not met publicly.

Minutes from a May 19 meeting of the Personnel Committee – which ELi missed because of lack of notice – reveal that the meeting focused almost entirely on Leyko’s possible evaluation. The Committee came to a consensus that the “decision [to evaluate] was best made by the full board.” The minutes indicated, “Advice is being sought from board’s attorney on whether June 30th deadline for completion of evaluation is still strictly required.”

At the full Board meeting, the trustees were in closed session for nearly 50 minutes. The Open Meetings Act allows materials protected under attorney-client privilege to be discussed this way, but the Board could tell the public the topic it discussed.

Criticisms over transparency

During public comment that followed closed session on May 26, Dreger lambasted the Board for “taking the maximum cloaking ability under the Open Meetings Act.”

She criticized the private nature of the May 19 Personnel Committee, stating that she had informed members that she wanted to receive information about meetings in advance of them. She stated that, “The item was never listed on the front page of the ELPS site. There was no press release, no notification to district families. So we missed it.”

Dreger has repeatedly asked the superintendent to notify district families of School Board meetings using the email notification system. This has not happened.

In her comments on May 19, Dreger promised to “educate voters on the transparency of board members.” She said she had found that even progressives elected to office “act like they are running a corporation.” But, she admonished, “you are doing the people’s business. We deserve more than the bare minimum.”

Following the meeting, Dreger emailed the Board members to (1) ask if discussion in the closed session stayed on topic; (2) ask for confirmation that no decision had been made in closed session; and (3) ask for confirmation that going into closed session was in the people’s best interest. 

Graham responded promptly, stating that closed discussion was “limited to the scope of the written opinion from the Board’s legal counsel.” She continued that she understood that “The Open Meetings Act requires a public body to make its decisions in open session. No vote or consensus was made in closed session” and said the use of closed session in this case was appropriate.

Nichole Martin, Chris Martin, Kath Edsall, and Hillary Henderson also responded, either endorsing Graham’s words or providing similar answers. Kate Powers and Terah Chambers did not reply to Dreger’s email.

Course correction?

In communications between ELi and the School Board after Tuesday’s meeting, it seems that some meetings were not posted due to breakdowns in communication inside ELPS.

Edsall reached out to Dreger immediately after Tuesday’s meeting to explain that she had “asked the board secretary to post the personnel meeting,” adding, “That is the procedure that is required.”

Leyko also emailed Dreger to explain lack of clear public notice for how to access the most recent Finance Committee meeting, saying, “I’ll own this one as I just created the zoom invite yesterday, and all of our office staff and tech staff are not in the office daily.”

According to Leyko, “Erin [Graham] and I are working on a process for committee chairs, my office and our tech office to ensure that notices, Zoom links, agendas and meeting minutes are posted,” Leyko continued.

It is unclear what the new system will look like, but Dreger suggested that ELPS mimic the City of East Lansing’s approach by creating a centralized landing page for electronic meetings and sending updates via email lists.

In response, Leyko pointed out that the City has a communications team that ELPS does not have.

Dreger says problems with school board transparency predates the public health emergency but have only gotten much worse. She says her concern is not just ELi’s inability to report on meetings that we don’t know about, but the public’s right to know about government actions.

The ELPS site is showing that the Board’s Policy Committee will meet on Friday, June 5, starting at 3 p.m. The full School Board is next set to meet Monday, June 8, at 7 p.m. The agenda for that is now up, as is the login information.

UPDATE, June 4, 11:30 a.m.: The Policy Committee meeting has been cancelled and will be rescheduled for sometime next week. Email shared with ELi by Chris Martin indicates the agenda will include ELPS’ relationship with ELPD; systematic policy review update; board members’ role on hiring committees; and racial equity policy planning.

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