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Amid turmoil, Salt Lake City school board wants to close part of meeting for self-evaluation

Published January 13, 2014 6:45 pm

Education • Member at center of friction says the criteria to exclude public have not been met.
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Following months of turmoil among board members, capped off by accusations of racism last week, the Salt Lake City School District board might close a portion of its meeting to the public Monday to conduct a "board self-evaluation."

It's not unusual for arguments to erupt during meetings, generally sparked by friction between new member Michael Clara and some of the other members. They have clashed during Clara's attempts to discuss dropout rates for Latino students, graduation rates, a tax increase, and his assertion that too many inexperienced and ineffective teachers work in west-side schools.

Superintendent McKell Withers said the board has conducted similar self-evaluations in the past and has closed portions of those discussions. He said the board's agenda labels that time as "closed" to give them the option.

But some, including Clara, question the need to exclude the public. Jeff Hunt, a First Amendment lawyer, called the closing of such a discussion "highly questionable."

Hunt said that the state Open and Public Meetings Act does allow elected bodies to close meetings to talk about the professional competence of an individual, but a board self-evaluation doesn't sound like it fits that description.

"If they're talking about ways the board could more constructively interact with each other, the board members, and perform their duties, then that's the kind of discussion the public should be entitled to hear," Hunt said.

"The whole public policy rationale for the Open Meetings Act," he said, "is to have discussions concerning the performance of public duties performed in public view."

Clara agrees.

"We're elected officials and everything else we do is open," he said, "and I think our self-evaluation should be open because we're elected officials."

Clara said he won't be able to attend the meeting because he'll be out of town. He said that though he'd like the discussion to be in the open, he does feel a self-evaluation is needed.

"We're dysfunctional," Clara said of the board.

Attempts to reach board president Kristi Swett for comment on Friday were unsuccessful. Board vice president Heather Bennett said she was not available for comment Friday because of Utah School Boards Association meetings.

At the board's most recent meeting Tuesday, Clara, the board's only Latino member, read aloud a letter he wrote accusing fellow members of racism. In the letter, he said they've mistreated him because of the color of his skin and avoided discussions about how to better serve minority students.

"I have been astonished at the insensitivity that has been displayed by select members of the board, whenever the topic of serving our ethnic minority student population is broached," Clara wrote.

"It has been my sad experience this past year," he continued, " that many members of this board have mistreated me not only in violation of our own ethical standards but have done so, I believe, because the complexion of my skin is different from theirs."

In February, Clara filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights over the quality of teachers in west-side schools, saying his concerns were ignored by the board and his request to place it on a spring agenda was denied. He raised the issues with lawmakers this fall.

On Tuesday, he went on to say, "Upon reflection, one can clearly see, this past year, the pattern and practice of disdain displayed by select members of this board when it comes to addressing conditions facing our most ethnically diverse student population."

Other board members quickly rebutted the accusations.

"To read a letter like this saying we are discriminating against you because of your race ... you are a hypocrite," board president Swett said during that meeting.

Board member Laurel Heath Young said that she hadn't seen discrimination in her 16 years on the board, noting that Clara is not the board's first minority member.

Board member Douglas Nelson also disagreed with Clara's assessment.

"I do not doubt that you feel that way but you are living in, just speaking only for myself, a really different reality from me …" Nelson said. "If you don't [get votes from other board members on issues] you're definitely not going to carry the day, but it has nothing to do with whether you have a Latino background or not."

Withers said the self-evaluation has been scheduled for months and was not spurred by Clara's accusations at the last meeting. He said he sees how some might have questions about the right way for a board to conduct a self-evaluation.

He said the board's decision about possibly closing the meeting will be a matter of balancing the public's need for transparency and openness against the board's need to have honest and deep conversations about the character, competence and physical/mental health of individuals — topics of discussion all allowed during closed meetings under Utah law.


About Monday's meeting

Monday's meeting of the Salt Lake City Board of Education will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the offices of the Salt Lake City School District, 440 East 100 South, Salt Lake City. The agenda lists a professional development discussion, followed by a closed session for a board self-evaluation.