Members of the public will now be allowed to attend School Leadership Team (SLT) meetings. These meetings were previously only open to students, parents, and staff members of each school. This decision is the result of a recent New York Supreme Court ruling which extends the Open Meeting Law to SLTs.
The Open Meeting Law allows citizens to observe meetings of government organizations to increase the accountability of public officials. The court ruling, delivered on Tuesday, October 25, marked the conclusion of a case brought by retired Department of Education (DOE) math teacher Michael P. Thomas against the DOE in May 2014. Thomas attempted to attend an SLT meeting in I.S. 49 in Staten Island in April 2014. Though he was initially invited to stay, the SLT later denied him entry because he was not a member of the school community.
Schools are legally required to form SLTs composed of staff, parents, and students, to discuss matters related to a school’s Comprehensive Education Plan goals, which are the school’s education policies, and the plans to execute these policies over the school year. Though attendance is now open to all, only elected members of the committee are allowed to vote on proposals.
Thomas argued that SLTs were public organizations involved in governance, and therefore, the general public should be allowed to access their meetings because of the Open Meeting Law. The Manhattan Supreme Court ruled in Thomas’ favor in April 2015, and after the DOE appealed, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court’s First Department upheld the decision in October 2016. The result of the case was soon raised by Stuyvesant’s administration during an SLT meeting on Tuesday, November 15.
The SLT has discussed the potential effects of the new regulations on the school, including the implications of allowing people outside the school community into the building.
The administration does not believe that the law will cause any major security issues. People who wish to attend SLT meetings and who are not affiliated with the school will be expected to sign in at the front desk and present an I.D. just as other visitors do. The school will also ensure school safety agents are aware of when SLT meetings take place.
The administration’s primary concern is the effect of the court’s decision on the privacy of students. Under the extension of the law, members of the press will also be allowed to attend and report on SLT meetings. “The concern I have is the idea of minors who are going to be photographed or recorded without their parents’ permission. My natural inclination is to always make sure that students are protected,” Interim Acting Principal Eric Contreras said.
The school has decided that the best way to deal with this concern is to inform students attending SLT meetings that their thoughts and words will no longer be private. “My plan is to respect the intent of the law, abide by it, and follow the mandate,” Contreras said. “At the same time, I want to make sure all student members are fully informed of their rights and what it means to participate in the SLT.”
In accordance with the Open Meeting Law, the school has posted the schedule for these meetings on the school website for those who wish to attend.
The Supreme Court’s verdict also requires schools to make the minutes of SLT meetings available to anyone who requests to see them. Until now, the minutes reflected all items that were brought up during meetings and discussions about them. In light of the new policy, however, the SLT has decided to adjust the minutes to meet the requirements set by the DOE. The minutes will only reflect the proposals, votes, and decisions made regarding the educational policy of the school.
Oftentimes, however, the SLT’s discussions extend beyond these parameters. “[The SLT] will discuss other items like sports, school safety, or transportation. It takes advantage of [the] opportune moment of having a broad constituency represented,” Contreras said.
Contreras believes that these discussions are an essential part of the SLT, even though they do not fall under its jurisdiction. “These additional discussions transform the SLT into this vibrant meeting, [where] voices [are brought] together in conversation,” he said.
The SLT will continue to discuss topics outside its authority by holding executive sessions which will include the same constituents. The Open Meeting Law allows government bodies to hold executive sessions during meetings if they wish to discuss topics that do not directly fall under their control. Members of the public will not have access to these sessions, unless invited by the SLT, and these proceedings will not be included in the minutes.
The Student Union (SU) hopes that this set-up will not adversely affect the lines of communication between the SLT and the student body. “Of course I am concerned because this decision hinders our ability to keep students informed about the SLT, but the court has decided that the law applies to SLTs so there’s nothing we can do,” senior and SLT student representative Asher Lasday said. “Currently, [the SU] posts a detailed description of the meetings on Facebook. The SU will continue to do everything we can to get information out to students.”
Despite the concerns that have been raised, the school believes that time will tell whether or not the new policy is beneficial. “I do think at Stuyvesant, this is less of a concern because the SLT is not the only means of communication […] there’s the student government, a vibrant newspaper, 150 clubs, and even our classes and hallways are safe environments for students to express themselves, ” Contreras said. “At [Stuyvesant], even if you didn’t have the SLT, you would still have a free exchange of ideas, and I value that.”