School District of Philadelphia Board of Education

Board of Education Chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson and School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite during a Board of Education meeting held on March 28, 2019 at the School District of Philadelphia’s headquarters.

— ABDUL R. SULAYMAN/TRIBUNE CHIEF PHOTOGRAPHER

Leaders of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools believe the School District of Philadelphia Board of Education violated the state’s public meetings law when it closed its March 28 public meeting in the board auditorium, and reconvened in another room to vote on some agenda items.

“An official meeting cannot be recessed in public, then reconvened in private,” wrote APPS co-founders Lisa Haver and Karel Kilimnik, who both attended the meeting. “Both the public and the media were shut out of the meeting. No matter the rationale or circumstances, a governing body cannot take votes on official items in private.”

The state’s Sunshine Act requires agencies to deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting, and dictates that no official action can be taken in a closed meeting. It further states that the community must be notified of a change of date, time or venue for a public meeting “at least 24 hours in advance of the convening of the meeting,” with a notice being printed in a newspaper of general circulation and posted at the location where the meeting is to take place.

“There are clear violations of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act,” Haver and Kilimnik continued. “The votes taken in the private meeting cannot be considered valid.”

Haver and Kilimnik asked the board to publicly reconvene its meeting and vote again.

However, through an email to the Tribune, a spokesperson for the Board said it did not violate the Sunshine Act because it streamed the smaller meeting online and on the district’s television channel. The board believes it does not need to retake the votes from its March 28 meeting.

One of the items the board voted on during the smaller meeting was its preliminary $3.6 billion lump sum budget for the 2019-20 school year.

The board issued a statement the day after the meeting, announcing that it had reconvened after the dispute over the metal detectors and voted on the budget.

“This will not be the last tough issue that we have to deal with, and this will not the be the last time that some members of the public disagree with our decision,” Board Chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson wrote in the statement. “However, we want to continue to build a community that is open to having respectful dialogue where both sides can be heard.”

The board had gone through only a few items on its agenda and heard from about 10 of the 46 people who had registered to speak when it voted to put metal detectors in all city high schools and a group of residents protested. The board attempted to continue the meeting in the board auditorium, but could not be heard over the protesters.

So board members adjourned and reconvened in the other room. The board did not invite members of the press or public to join it.

Haver and Kilimnik said they asked where the Board was meeting, assuring school police officers they hadn’t caused the protest, but claimed they were denied access to the later meeting.

Video of the later meeting shows that it lasted only eight minutes.

The board’s statement said the remaining 35 people who had registered to speak will have the opportunity to comment at the board’s meeting on April 25.

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