Why did the Indianapolis Public School Board spend nearly two days together last weekend among the rolling hills of southern Indiana?
The stated reason was for training, and board members have been careful not to describe the get-together as a general meeting that would be required to be open to the public under Indiana’s Open Door Law.
But board members also acknowledged that getting away from Indianapolis also allowed them a chance to talk frankly behind closed doors to try to resolve some personal issues after a tense year that saw several close votes and three incumbent board members defeated in the November election.
Indiana’s Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, who provides advice, assistance and education on the state’s laws requiring open government, said the board was perhaps a bit “sloppy” by not more fully describing the session as an orientation, not just training. But as long as board members discuss no public business they are allowed to hold out-of-town retreats under state law.
“The whole team-building, kumbaya stuff, I don’t have a problem with,” Britt said. “It’s not really authorized under executive session. It’s more under the lines of an orientation, which aren’t considered meetings.”
The board spent an estimated $1,500 on lodging and travel to stay at Scenic View Lodge in Bloomington, and did, indeed, get training. Don McAdams of the Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems coached the board members on their roles leading the district and how they differ from Lewis Ferebee’s job as superintendent, said board president Diane Arnold. McAdams’ bill for that message is expected to be about $4,000, board members said.
McAdams, the trainer, was an education adviser to former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Texas Gov. Rick Perry and is best known for leading the Houston school board through a massive reform while Paige was the district superintendent in the 1990s. The Houston reform helped lay the groundwork for wider testing and accountability-based reform in Texas. Then Gov. George W. Bush regularly used Houston as an example of reform done right while in Texas and later as president while shaping his signature education bill, No Child Left Behind.
Board members said no public business was discussed at the training. There will be no meeting minutes because IPS does not take minutes at executive sessions.
Why wasn’t the training held in Indianapolis? Arnold said holding it elsewhere in the state allowed board members to commit a full day to the training without distractions.
“I kept thinking, ‘Boy, I wish we would have done this last year,'” Arnold said. “Maybe we wouldn’t have had some of the personal problems we did.”
Board member Gayle Cosby, who at times last year sided with the three board members who were defeated in November, said she first resisted the training when others suggested it last year because she thought it was too expensive.
“I thought it was expensive as hell,” Cosby said. “Was the money well spent? Yeah. It was a good training. It really did define the work that needs to be done. It’s a big job.”
Board member Caitlin Hannon said she hopes the training eliminates a culture from last year’s board that she described as micromanaging.
“I’d talk about (what our role is) and you’d get seven different answers,” Hannon said of last year. “Spending time getting on the same page and talking about those things was the first step in getting away from micromanagement. We’re going to stay at the 30,000-foot level.”