Urban Education

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Going Public

Business meetings that bring together representatives of the Cleveland school district's staff and a handful of school board members will be opened to the public this month.

The district came under criticism recently after watchdogs alleged that important decisions were being made behind closed doors in "work groups." The panels, which sometimes include community members, have recently tackled thorny issues, including budget- reduction recommendations.

The 72,000-student district faces a $70 million deficit in its $460 million budget for 2004-05.

Believing that the district was violating the state's open-meetings law, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio called for the release of the work groups' membership lists, along with agendas and any information discussed during the meetings.

The nine-member Cleveland school board, which is appointed by the mayor, has no formal committees. The "real work" of the board appears to have been conducted during the meetings of those informal groups, contended Michael T. Honohan, a volunteer lawyer with the ACLU in Cleveland.

"It's an obvious attempt to circumvent the law," Mr. Honohan said. "Vital information is being concealed from the public."

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the school system's chief executive officer, said in an interview last week that she believes the district has a legal right to hold work-group sessions in private. But she added that she would not risk five years of educational progress under her leadership because of accusations that the district works in a "clandestine" manner.

Ms. Byrd- Bennett explained that she has appointed work groups throughout her administrative career to assemble staff members to research and review policy issues before recommendations are presented to the board. She said the public outcry emerged over the past few months because board members joined some work groups, and the topics discussed were controversial financial matters.

"This blew up a nonissue into an issue," she said.

Mr. Honohan, who had not spoken with district administrators about making the meetings public, described the school system's change of course—less than two weeks after the ACLU denounced the work groups—as a victory.

Karla Scoon Reid

Vol. 23, Issue 26, Page 9

Published in Print: March 10, 2004, as Urban Education

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