ICSD is a massive entity, serving over 6,000 students at a dozen schools. Unlike the executive branch of the federal government, however, the decisions that go into writing policy, hiring teachers, and fixing infrastructure are not made through the executive’s Twitter account. Rather, these important administratives tasks are left to the nine elected officials who comprise the ICSD Board of Education (BoE). BoE voting meetings are open to the public and scheduled at 6:00 p.m. every other Tuesday.
There has been some recent controversy over the BoE’s use of executive session, during which the Board can meet privately without disclosing their discussion to the public. Though these sessions serve an important purpose in discussing specific private matters, some members of the ICSD community are concerned over the fact that executive sessions have been anticipated at almost every meeting over the past few years. The BoE often opens up their meeting in public session at 6:00, but then immediately moves into executive session for about one hour.
Sara Shenk, a social studies teacher at IHS, has been a prominent voice within the school against the way the BoE uses executive session. In the past, Shenk served as advisor to the student representatives to the BoE, and was among the first to notice the BoE moving its executive sessions to the beginning of each meeting. “I served two terms as an elected member of Common Council for the city of Ithaca, so I was particularly aware of procedural issues. There are several questions or problems that I have with doing executive session in the way that the board is doing it,” Shenk said.
Shenk said that the purview of topics that an executive session can be called for is very narrow, encompassing only negotiations—such as with a teachers’ union—litigation, and discussion of a specific employee or student, in accordance with the Open Meetings Law of New York State. Because of this limited amount of discussion material, unless a school board is being sued or in the process of negotiating with a union, it seems unlikely that an executive session would be called for at every meeting. “I don’t know of any other board or body that does executive session every public meeting. I think that that is very unusual, and I think that it’s not a good practice,” Shenk said. Shenk clarified that she was particularly worried about sessions hindering the BoE’s transparency, which, according to BoE President Robert Ainslie, the Board considers very important. There is no evidence that the BoE is breaking any laws in holding executive sessions.
As a Participation in Government (Gov) teacher, Shenk pointed out another problem with scheduling executive sessions at the beginning of every public meeting. Gov is a mandatory course for IHS seniors, and as part of the course’s community service requirement, students must attend a public committee meeting for at least two hours. Many Gov students naturally gravitate towards BoE meetings, which are regularly scheduled and close to the high school. Because of the executive session, however, a BoE meeting advertised to begin at 6:00 actually opens to the public an hour later at 7:00. Students and community members who look up the document of scheduled BoE meetings on the website may find themselves waiting for an hour before the meeting opens in public session.
“When I was on Common Council, we did occasionally have executive sessions, certainly not every meeting, and we would put them at the end of the meeting because we were going to be there anyways, so the public didn’t have to wait there for us to do that and then come back,” Shenk said. “I don’t know why you would want to set it up [with the session at the beginning of the meeting].”
Shenk did not have any specific examples wherein the BoE’s executive sessions hampered accessibility or made it difficult to communicate with the Board. She emphasized the poor example that it set, saying that the practice was detrimental to the Board’s goal of being as open and inviting as possible. “I think anyone who is in the district—students, parents, teachers—would want to make sure all discussions that can be public are public,” she said.
The bottom line for Shenk, and for many IHS students who have attended BoE meetings, is that the Board’s practice of calling executive sessions is unexplained and scheduled inconveniently with how meetings are advertised, hindering transparency and on occasion forcing community members to wait before they can attend a meeting in public session. “Any elected body should want to be as accessible and transparent as possible. And whether they want to send a message or not, their [use of executive session at the beginning of the meeting’s published start time] sends the message that ‘our time is more valuable than your time,’” Shenk said.
Ainslie repudiated the notion that the BoE’s practices are legally questionable. “My job, being an elected volunteer on the Board and as Board President, is to make sure we are abiding by the law of the state of New York, and part of that is to ensure we are abiding by the Open Meetings Law,” Ainslie said, asked about the frequency with which the board calls its executive sessions. “Obviously, everyone is allowed to question. But we feel, and I certainly feel, that we follow the rule of law.” Ainslie said that executive sessions are anticipated so often because there are items on past litigations, employment issues, and student issues that need to be updated every meeting, in addition to new issues brought up by Superintendent Brown and the administration. Ainslie declined to comment on how other boards typically run their meetings.
Though the Board may not have violated the law, there are some who view their practices as suspicious. An article by Michael Elsberry, superintendent of the Herreid-Pollock School District in South Dakota, describes some questionable practices associated with the use of executive sessions during public board meetings: “Is your board in the habit of scheduling an executive session at every board meeting? Do your executive sessions take up as much or more time as your actual public agenda? Does a board member enter a meeting and request an executive session on something that’s outside the published agenda? If any of these questions is answered affirmatively, you have a significant problem.” The first of these criteria is true for the BoE, the second is not, and the third has not been shown to be—the motion for a BoE executive session is often passed without verbally declaring the subject of the session. According to Ainslie, this is done to speed up the motioning procedure for executive session, and the topics of discussion are actually listed in minutes that are publically available on the BoE website. “The board clerk has a sheet of paper, really a document, for [an] exec session… there’s probably six or seven different lines of legalese [on it] that we can mark off. [It says] why we moved into exec session and for what reason,” Ainslie said.
Asked about complaints from the public or ICSD members about waiting for an hour due to the timing of executive session, Ainslie said that there were very few. “Folks, as you can imagine, complain about a lot of things,” he said. “So is this high on the list? Not really.” He drew attention to the fact that anticipated executive sessions are marked on copies of the BoE agenda, which is available on the website—although the meeting schedule, which does not mention the executive sessions, is more prominently featured and advertised through email by BoE Clerk Jennifer Hillman—and at every meeting. “We try to make that pretty clear. Anybody who has been around the district for a while can figure out that that’s typically what happens,” Ainslie said. “We make it as public as possible, and we want input.”
Ainslie was also quick to point out a potential source of confusion: committee meetings, which are held on the Tuesdays in between voting meetings.
“[Committee meetings are] not like a full board meeting. They’re not televised. But actually, that’s where most of the work is done. And we keep telling everybody that, that if you want to do a deep dive into policy, or finance, or the work that’s going on in the district, go to a committee meeting. That’s where we really have wide-ranging conversations,” Ainslie said. Government teachers typically suggest that students attend the voting meetings, which are the only meetings attended by IHS Representatives to the BoE. Ainslie said that public attendance is significantly lower for committee meetings than for voting meetings, raising the possibility that more transparency could be achieved if the public were encouraged to attend committee meetings instead of or in addition to voting meetings.
Ainslie acknowledged that the BoE “is probably not as transparent as it certainly can be,” but added that “there’s a bunch of board members who would be very happy to talk to anybody at any time.”
“We’re glad to talk about what’s going on in the classroom; there’s some things we can’t talk about with folks, and that’s typically lawsuits and negotiations—and personnel matters. That has to go through a process,” Ainslie said, “But other than that, everything is open. There’s no black box where real decisions are made.”
Shenk cited the New York State Committee of Open Government video in her claim that the BoE is being obfuscatory in its practice of calling executive session. The video, as well as some legal authorities and resources, explicitly states calling executive sessions at every meeting as a questionable practice, and one to avoid.
Ainslie responded by stating that the BoE was not breaking any laws. He said that the BoE could be more transparent, but that it had not received many direct complaints about its practices. When asked about Shenk’s other issue—that having executive sessions at the beginning of meetings forces some community members to wait for an hour due to ambiguous advertising—Ainslie acknowledged that the timing is by choice, and that it is low on the BoE’s priority list.
Given this, it is unlikely that the BoE will change executive session policies anytime soon.