The New York State appellate court has ruled that the New York City Department of Education must allow the public to sit in on school leadership team (SLT) meetings, according to Public Advocate Letitia James, who is named in the suit. The ruling upholds an earlier ruling by a state judge that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration appealed.
School leadership teams comprise school principals, parents, staff members, and a union representative, and are mandatory at every public school in the city. Some schools allow non-members to sit in, while others explicitly restrict it.
“The Appellate Division ruled unanimously to open these school leadership meetings and that is an important step toward transparency and accountability,” said James. “It’s a giant step to making sure parent voices are heard and they’re not shut out of the system.”
The lawsuit was first filed in 2014 by Michael Thomas, a retired Manhattan teacher, after he attempted to attend an SLT meeting at I.S.49 on Staten Island and was denied entry by the school’s principal, Linda Hill.
The teams are responsible for writing the school’s annual goals, which are then reflected in the budget, and are consulted prior to new school leadership hires and changes in school-wide policies.
The de Blasio administration had previously fought — successfully — an earlier lawsuit brought by a teacher who sought to enforce the state’s open-meetings rules on SLT gatherings in 2013. At the time, the city argued that the teams discuss sensitive information, including school security issues and student disciplinary records. The state’s open-meetings law permits groups to hold some private sessions.
In a letter dated December 2014, James asked schools chancellor Carmen Fariña to adopt a citywide policy permitting the public to attend the meetings. The city refused, insisting that the teams do not conduct public business, and therefore had no obligation to abide by the state law. James and Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a prominent local advocacy group, joined the suit last January.
The city remains opposed. “The state legislature never intended to mandate that SLT meetings be open to the general public. We are considering our options,” said a spokesman for the Law Department.
James said that the SLT meetings are just one of an “alphabet soup of organizations that exist to increase the role of parents and community members” in school governance and that open access to them is a victory. But the fight for school transparency, she said, is not over. James says she is hoping to convince Albany to give her office as well as New York City parents a more prominent role on the thirteen-member, appointed Panel for Educational Policy, which is responsible for voting on all education issues.