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After Facebook flame war, IPS board president apologizes (updated)

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and board members Gayle Cosby (center) and Diane Arnold at a meeting last year.
IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and board members Gayle Cosby (center) and Diane Arnold at a meeting last year.
Scott Elliott

It didn’t take long for an awkward Indianapolis Public School Board meeting to spark five days of acrimonious social media sparring that included board members, a radio host and the general public.

But today, board President Diane Arnold said a heated online debate went too far and she took to Facebook to apologize for her part in it.

“It has been a difficult week for me,” she wrote in an 800-word post this morning. “Last Sunday, the IPS board, under my leadership, decided to gather and continue our work after completing and approving our core belief document. It has grown into a major issue with several individuals, groups and even some board members. I have handled it very poorly. I felt attacked and I acted aggressively. I am ashamed of my behavior both as president of the IPS Board and a person. I want to put this issue to rest so we can concentrate on what we need to be doing.”

Sunday’s special-called board meeting quickly went awry. Board members said it was intended to be an informal work session for strategic planning and was scheduled for a Sunday because that fit the most board members’ schedules. Because those sessions are generally informal and sparsely attended, they had planned to sit in the foyer of the board office.

But the meeting notice did not indicate it was a work session. Because Sunday meetings are so rare, about 15 people came expecting the board might be addressing something urgent. Among those in attendance were reporters and union representatives. Everyone moved to the larger board meeting room, but board members could not operate the sound system. Some who attended complained they couldn’t hear and felt unwelcome to interact with board members.

A few soon took to social media to lambaste board members. Radio host Amos Brown was withering in his criticism of the board and the meeting on his “Amos in the Afternoons” show on WTLC.

“It’s becoming obvious that the leadership of IPS has made a conscious decision to openly provide as little public input and involvement in what, to many, looks like radical plans to change the system,” Brown wrote Monday on the station’s website. “Into what no one’s quite sure yet.”

Board members responded strongly to his and other complaints on Facebook. Consider one example:

“The constant implication that we are plotting some horrible plan to hurt our children is distracting from the important work we need to be accomplishing,” Arnold wrote on Monday in a Facebook comment. “It is fed with negative energy and fear mongering. Some people would rather stay mired in ineffective practices than to take a chance that change could make things better.”

Board member Gayle Cosby responded: “Again, I don’t think anyone implied that we are plotting to hurt children. I think the take away from the meeting (and from the media coverage of it) is that we need to make consistent efforts to be transparent with the public. That way we aren’t perceived as being ‘mired in ineffective practices.’”

Arnold answered with sarcasm.

“Thank you Gayle Cosby for your thorough explanation,” Arnold wrote. “I am not sure how I could function as a board member without your constant wisdom and demonstration that you are the only board member who truly cares about our children and their important educational needs. We are indeed blessed to have you as one of our own.”

Board member Kelly Bentley argued the meeting, while public under state law, did not require the board to interact with the public.

“It was frustrating for all involved and for that we should all apologize but ‘mired in ineffective practices’ is one person’s opinion and certainly not very accurate,” Bentley wrote in same comment thread. “And as a reminder, this was not a public meeting, but a meeting held in public. It was properly noticed and even though it wasn’t an ideal set up, those who wanted to hear the conversation were able to do so. Minutes are not required during work sessions since the documents we were working on — in this case the mission and vision statements — will be discussed and voted on during an official meeting of the board. Not sure how we could have been any more transparent.”

Bentley later clarified even though minutes are not required, board member LaNier Echols’ notes would be used as the official record for the meeting. Arnold said neither of the two paid board employees who normally attend their meetings could attend the meeting because of important family commitments.

In today’s Facebook post, Arnold offered specific apologies to Brown and Cosby, along with anyone else she offended.

“I am ashamed that I was not a good role model for our students, a capable leader for our board and a worthy public servant in the position to which I was elected,” Arnold wrote. “I don’t make excuses for my mistakes and pledge to not use social media as a platform to seek revenge in the future.”

(NOTE: This post was updated to clarify that the board was not required by state law to take minutes at a work session.)

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