Much to my wife’s disappointment, everything that bears an organic label in the grocery store is not really organic. Likewise, much to the disappointment of everyday Delawareans who want a say in the education policy process, everything called “public” isn’t really public. For example, we have “public” schools and districts governed by board members elected by less than 1% of voters. And we have “public” meetings where critical decisions are made that are generally attended only by insiders and folks paid to be present. If you want a quintessential example of such super secret meetings– poorly promoted and likely poorly attended– look no further than tonight’s district consolidation task force meeting.
As Delaware lawmakers looked to plug a $400 million budget hole earlier this year, there was widespread interest and public discourse about potential revenue sources, cuts, and efficiencies that would best enhance the state’s fiscal outlook. One of the most popular debates that emerged — efficiencies to be gained by consolidating the state’s 19 school districts — managed to transition from talking point to task force as House Current Resolution 39 (HCR39) passed on the final day of legislative session. The concurrent resolution created a task force to “study and make recommendations regarding the impact of consolidating school districts in the state of Delaware” that will present its “recommendations to the members of the Delaware General Assembly no later than January 30, 2018.” Yet, despite the broad interest in this topic, most have no clue this committee convenes its first meeting tonight.
The meeting notice was posted a week ago on the state’s public meeting calendar. But quietly posting notice of an important meeting is not a path to true public engagement. Neither the Governor’s Office, the legislature, nor the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) issued press releases to raise awareness about this task force. They have not publicly announced the members of the task force as they have done in the past. There was no note about this task force in the “Take Note” newsletter the DDOE disseminated on July 26th (a day after the meeting agenda was published on the public meetings calendar). The meeting was also not announced or promoted during the State Board meeting on July 27th. Other than its presence on the public meeting calendar, this task force has all the characteristics of a best-kept secret.
Rather than a transparent lead up to an important conversation, tonight’s public meeting is set up like a secret society where nobody knows who was invited to the club until they arrive at the meeting. As it stands, the task force is stacked with insiders and many who are likely to be most invested in the current system of 19 school districts. HCR 39 stipulates the task force must include the Education Policy Advisor for the Governor; The Secretary of Education or designee; 2 members of the House of Representatives appointed by the Speaker of the House, one from each caucus; 2 members of the Senate appointed by the Senate President Pro Tempore, one from each caucus; 3 Superintendents, appointed by the President of the Chief School Officers Association, one from each county; The Director of OMB, or designee; A representative appointed by the President of the Delaware State Education Association; The Executive Director of the School Boards Association, or designee; and several others. If it were not for Representative Stephanie Bolden’s amendment (DelawareCAN advocated for this amendment), which added more parents, representatives from each county government, and representation from Wilmington’s city council, this task force would have been missing even more critical perspectives.
Ultimately, the status quo of super secret “public” meetings will not change until decision makers understand they will never derive the best ideas for improving the system from the segregated, stealthy spaces of education policy. It will never change until policymakers recognize the many everyday citizens who want to be included in the work of improving schools. They are going to have to really want involvement. Until then, the only thing truly public about their meetings will be the critiques from those of us fighting for a better way.