After many friction-filled meetings, the Salt Lake City School District board conducted a self-evaluation Monday evening in public, eschewing earlier thoughts of possibly doing it behind closed doors.
The board’s agenda had labeled the self-evaluation portion of the meeting as "closed" to give the board the option to go into closed session if need be, said board vice president Heather Bennett. But the board never even discussed closing it to the public Monday evening.
"We felt like there was a possibility, depending on how this conversation unfolded, we might want to go into closed session at some point to try to address those specific issues in private," Bennett said referring to issues pertaining to individual board members. "As it turned out, this was not necessary."
The public evaluation followed questioning by some about whether closing it would violate the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act. Board member Michael Clara said earlier in the week that he opposed closing the meeting, and a First Amendment attorney contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday called the validity of closing such a meeting "highly questionable" in a Monday Tribune article.
Under Utah law, meetings may be closed for "discussion of the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual."
Clara, who was not present at the meeting Monday because he was out of town, has often been at the center of the strife that has marked district board meetings.
Clara and some other board members have clashed during his 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.
At the district’s meeting last week, Clara, the board’s only Latino member, accused other board members of mistreating him because of the color of his skin and avoiding discussions about how to better serve minority students.
Board members rebutted those claims during that meeting, saying they saw no discrimination against Clara, just disagreement.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Clara contributed statements that were considered as part of the self-evaluation. The evaluation was a two-hour process that proved much tamer than many of the board’s other meetings have been, with almost no argument between members.
As part of the evaluation, board members were asked to individually choose from a list of items, written by board members, describing things the board does well and another list of items describing ways to improve.
The item that got the most votes for areas to improve was one that read, "I would like all Board Members to show each other professionalism, respect both during and after our meetings which should focus on students and the work only the Board can do and not on individual viewpoints."
Another item that read, "Address the 50 percent dropout rate of Latino students and the need of our students" got the second most votes for areas to improve.
The item that earned the most votes for things done well was one that stated, "The Board’s Student Achievement Plan is research based, data driven, forward thinking, innovative with resources aligned to priorities."
The item that garnered the second most votes for things well-done read, "The Board and District personnel are not racist and try to distribute resources to students who need it and not dependent on whose precinct they are in."
Board leaders said Monday they felt the evaluation was productive, while acknowledging it wasn’t necessarily designed to solve all the board’s issues.
"I think what it does is gives us a great starting point to look at some of the commonalities," said board president Kristi Swett.
Paul Svendsen, whose son will be entering a district school in the fall, attended the meeting concerned about its possible closure.
He said he was, "glad the board came to their senses" and kept the meeting open. But he said, "It seemed to me they glossed over the most important issue, which is the substance of the issues Michael Clara has raised."
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