Proviso District 209 School Board President Rodney Alexander reversed an earlier decision and announced school board meetings would once again be livestreamed, beginning with a raucous five-hour meeting on Nov. 9 at Proviso East High School.
Alexander’s controversial decision not to livestream the Oct. 12 regular board meeting prompted an outcry from district parents and staff and prompted two board members — Amanda Grant and Claudia Medina — to hold their own community listening sessions in the weeks afterward.
Alexander, addressing the decision to resume the video broadcasts near the end of the lengthy board meeting Nov. 9, said the livestream was back because the board wanted it back.
“It’s a privilege, though,” he said. “It has nothing to do with transparency … livestreaming is not a requirement.”
In an interview after he abruptly cut the practice Oct. 12, eliminating something that had been in place since 2017, Alexander told the Review that the behavior of community members who had participated in recent board meetings led to the decision.
“We don’t by law have to record at all,” Alexander said at the time. “The superintendent and I are responsible for setting up the meetings. We knew the crowd was coming. We knew that the teachers union was putting together these theatrics or whatever.”
On Oct. 13, one day after last month’s meeting, Alexander vowed not to livestream or record regular board meetings and board committee meetings again as part of an effort to get them under control.
His recent change-of-heart did not accompany a more tranquil environment.
The Nov. 9 board meeting was attended by upwards of 100 people, including a bloc of district teachers who have been vocally critical of some board members and district Supt. James Henderson in the midst of negotiations with the teachers union over a new contract.
Those in attendance in Maywood had to wait several hours to hear their voices heard, as the board opted to move public comment later in the planned agenda. The public comment period was later pushed back up the agenda after Medina moved to do so around 9:30 p.m., two hours after the meeting began, saying some in attendance needed to get home on a school night.
During the public comment period, a string of emotional speakers unleashed a barrage of criticisms toward the board and administration, ranging from concerns about security in school buildings, a backlog of IT issues, and out-of-control student behavior and fights — something Henderson addressed in a video to the district earlier this month.
Alexander, too, addressed the atmosphere in D209’s three high schools, citing the COVID- 19 pandemic’s impact on students’ home and school lives, and saying the violent environment described by some parents at the board meeting was overblown.
“I push back vehemently on the notion that our scholars are out of control,” he said.
Alexander was combative throughout the meeting, clashing with Medina in particular over everything from the superintendent’s credit card expenditures to the hiring of additional security personnel to staffing and facilities concerns.
When it finally came time to vote on a number of items presented during the meeting, it was after midnight on Nov. 10. The board split on most votes, with Medina and Grant in the minority.
The contested issues included the purchase of a curriculum enhancement program called Educational Epiphany at a price tag of $533,660 for “professional development, workshops and services, literacy kits, resource guides, video library, school license and consumables.” That purchase was approved by a 5-2 vote.
Medina, who voted against the purchase, called the cost “absolutely exorbitant,” something challenged by several other board members who countered that the dollar sign, while offering a bit of sticker shock, broke down to less than $200 per student.
“I don’t think this amount is too much to invest in our children,” board member Theresa Kelly said.
The program was presented early in the evening by Dr. Donyall Dickey, who touted its effectiveness in teaching literacy and improving students’ overall competence by pivoting away from a practice of teaching in order to improve test scores. That drew applause from some in the audience, including teachers, but when the price was revealed, one audience member derided the program as a half-million dollars for “flash cards.”
Grant, who also voted no on the purchase, cautioned that the move was made too hastily, as the board had not been presented with studies on its efficacy in other districts or received widespread buy-in from teachers.
Dickey is a former school administrator in Atlanta who was briefly picked to be the school superintendent in Portland, Oregon in 2017. Dickey withdrew his interest in the position, however, after school board members said he displayed a “lack of candor” about his background, including a minor criminal history, the Oregonian newspaper reported at the time.