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IPS board members talk at a public work session.

IPS board members talk at a public work session.

Casual Sunday IPS board meeting or ‘travesty’ of public access?

It was supposed to be a different kind of meeting for the Indianapolis Public School Board — a casual Sunday afternoon work session for the board to hash out a shared vision for the ‘school autonomy’ it has promised.

Casual it was — board members at times joked around and a sweatshirt-clad Superintendent Lewis Ferebee helped them set up before promptly leaving — but the meeting didn’t go as planned.

Because they met without staff, the board’s secretary wasn’t there to take her usual notes. So board members decided a reporter’s recording could suffice as a substitute. And without the microphones they normally use, some of the 15 or so people who attended complained that they couldn’t hear. In the audience were representatives from the teachers union and a union that represents maintenance workers.

The issues didn’t stop there.

Despite a warning from board president Diane Arnold that board members would not be taking questions or comments from the audience, one person yelled out his own ideas as the board tried to craft a vision statement.

Radio host Amos Brown of WTLC’s Amos in the Afternoons tweeted that the meeting was “disrespectful to the public” because audience members couldn’t hear board members.

“None of us can hear a word IPS Board members saying,” Brown tweeted under the handle @AmosWTLCIndy. “Travesty of (a) public meeting.”

Those concerns resulted in a back-and-forth between board members Gayle Cosby and Kelly Bentley. Cosby asked if the board should try to figure out a way to hook up a microphone so the audience could hear better. Bentley said the public could move their chairs up if they couldn’t hear the conversation.

There was also tension between board members about how the meeting would be reported.

“Did you just say you hope people aren’t blogging about this?” Cosby, who recently started a blog about school board issues, asked Bentley.

Bentley said she didn’t mean that.

“I hope people (who) are writing about this are fair because we’re just trying to have a conversation,” Bentley said.

Board members have made it clear they want principals to have more control of decisions about their schools. But how far that authority should extend is the question. Board members debated whether principals should have control over decisions like the budget, hiring, school calendars, building maintenance and more. No final decisions were made.

There was also discussion, however, of scrapping the board’s new principal selection process.

Cosby said the board should keep in place the process it approved last year designed to give school communities more of a say in picking principals. But Bentley and board member Caitlin Hannon said that makes it difficult to hold Ferebee accountable for the school’s performance. The community should be involved in other ways, they said.

And board members said they want teachers to have more control over curriculum and what happens in their classrooms.

Most board members said teachers face too many barriers to deliver lessons as they see fit. Instead, they said, teachers are held to strict guides that dictate what is taught and when. That takes the creativity out of teaching, board members said.

Board member Mary Ann Sullivan said the board should instead seek to limit the frequent student transfers that prompted those teaching guides.

“I think we’re trying to solve the wrong end of the problem,” Sullivan said.