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Dayton school task force to move ahead despite paper’s public access fight

Acting Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli and Dayton City Commissioner Jeff Mims both said their intent is to move forward with the DPS Facilities Task Force in private as planned, despite a dispute over public access.

The district is considering closing multiple schools because several buildings are below 50 percent capacity, according to school officials. They may also try to sell or repurpose other properties, but Lolli said they do not plan to lay off staff. The moves could save the district money, but would uproot hundreds of students and dozens of teachers.

RELATED: Task force cancels meeting after media questions

The task force gathered Tuesday morning, intending to hold its first meeting in private, then canceled the event after media members argued the law required the meeting to be open to the public, because the group was a committee of a public body.

The Dayton Daily News has sent two letters objecting to the task force’s failure to comply with what are called Ohio sunshine laws that hold government accountable. The newspaper also has requested public records regarding the task force’s formation.

Lolli on Thursday called the task force “a superintendent’s committee,” and task force co-chair Mohamed Al-Hamdani said the committee was not created by any public body.

EARLIER: Task force named to study potential school closures

But the headline of the Jan. 4 press release announcing creation of the group said, “Dayton Board of Education and Dayton City Commission Seat School Facilities Task Force.” The board of education and city commission are both public bodies and are subject to Ohio’s open meetings law.

Having public input

When Dayton Public Schools officials first said on Dec. 12 that they might close about three schools next fall, Lolli said the district would hold community meetings in all four quadrants of the city in January to hear parents’ and residents’ opinions about the schools.

Those public meetings have been moved back to March, with dates and sites not yet announced. Based on the agenda from Tuesday, the 16 task force members, many of whom do not live in Dayton, planned to meet four or five times before having a face-to-face dialogue with the public.

HISTORY: How did Dayton schools get to this point on facilities?

Task force members did announce Jan. 4 an email address for the public to send comments to the group – And Lolli said Thursday the district is working on a process to get broad input from parents at schools most likely to be affected.

The task force’s charge is to make recommendations to the school board by April 2, and several task force members emphasized that the school board will make the final decisions about closing or merging schools.

“The board doesn’t vote on anything before there’s an opportunity for the public to speak,” Lolli said. “They’ll have that opportunity (before the board), and they’ll also have that opportunity in March.”

RELATED: DPS focuses on academics, long-term vision

But some residents have expressed frustration with the district’s plans and are holding their own meetings. Racial Justice Now’s parent meeting Jan. 25 will include discussion of potential impact on black students in West Dayton, where all of the under-enrolled schools are located, according to the district.

Former school board member Mario Gallin, who ran unsuccessfully for the board again last fall, said DPS should discuss the issues in public now, and if there is opposition, explain their position and move forward.

“I would hope that the school district would learn from past mistakes,” Gallin said. “The way it’s going now, it seems as though it’s all shrouded in secrecy and then there’s no trust. One of the messages on the campaign trail last fall was that we need to build trust in the school district. And they’re absolutely not doing it right now.”

Legal opinions

The Dayton Daily News sent a letter to task force leaders Tuesday, objecting to the closed meetings and citing multiple court rulings where similar committees were determined to be public bodies required to meet in public.

Task force members have not submitted a formal response, although Mims said verbally Thursday, “We have a legal opinion that says the meeting is not a public meeting.”

YEAR IN REVIEW: Top Ohio, Dayton education stories of 2017

Lolli pointed to a Dayton school board vote Dec. 19 authorizing her to study the issue. In their recommendation, the board voted to “approve the full study of buildings and facilities with a forthcoming recommendation from the superintendent and her team in late January or early February.”

However, Lolli said the idea for a task force came later, with Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley suggesting it to her. The Dayton Daily News has filed public records requests with both the city and the school district seeking documents on the origination of the task force.

Individual task force members had a variety of comments on the process Thursday. Lolli said many issues need more review, from the cost of maintaining unused buildings, to opportunities for vacant land, as well as the under-enrolled school buildings. She said the task force will release data on those topics as it studies them to help people understand the issues.

RELATED: Relaxed graduation standards may be extended

Dayton teachers union President David Romick and Learn to Earn Dayton CEO Tom Lasley both said initial meetings should be private so that task force members could make out-of-the-box suggestions “in a safe environment,” according to Romick, and without the public “saying these people are crazy,” according to Lasley.

There’s an old saying that “democracy is often messy,” and the question is whether the law allows for that closed environment in this case. Romick said he had not done any legal research on the issue.

“The way this week went, I was like, I’m stepping out of this issue,” Romick said. “I know there are differing legal opinions that are going back and forth, and when somebody tells me what the hell I’m doing, then I’ll do it.”

RELATED: School board names newcomer Harris as president

Dayton Metro Library Executive Director Tim Kambitsch, who deals with open meetings law in his agency, said whether this task force is subject to that law is “not a cut-and-dried answer.” But he said making sure that the public has “lots of opportunities” to give input on the school closure issue is very important.

Artist and community activist Bing Davis said he has no opinion on whether the meeting should be open or closed.

““Those of us who will come in and contribute will come in and … meet whatever those guidelines are,” Davis said. “What I’m going to say and do, I can do in any format whether it’s in a field with a million people watching or in a room with a few people.”

Staff writers Katie Wedell, Will Garbe and Josh Sweigart contributed to this story.

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