Sparks flew as a faith-based community group met with city school officials.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- As a member of ACTION's education committee, Mary Lou Mack says she's attended several city school board meetings, and she knows how frustrating it can get.
The board opens the meeting and within minutes heads into executive session behind closed doors for sometimes more than an hour, leaving stewing members of the public outside staring at the walls, milling the hallways and generally wasting time.
So, in a meeting Monday between ACTION and the school board, she had her chance to talk about how the public perceives the process.
"Honestly, the public thinks you're kind of sneaky," Mack told board members.
"I think you've got a great big public relations problem that you're going to have to address sometime along the line," she later added.
Focus of meeting: The number, length and timing of school board meetings, particularly closed executive sessions, were the main focus of the sometimes testy two-hour meeting that left some board members red with indignation.
The Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods is a group of 25 Youngstown area churches. It started in 1997 as a watchdog of the region's government, economic development and education efforts, including monitoring city school board meetings.
At Monday's session, the third meeting between the two bodies, ACTION members said the executive sessions are too long and should be conducted when the public isn't forced to wait around.
Board members said closed meetings, which are allowed under state law only to discuss specific personnel, collective bargaining and other issues, are necessary to protect the confidentiality of certain matters the board may be discussing.
"Some things have to be kept quiet, not because they're sneaky, but because they're personal issues," board member Tracey Winbush said.
"I hate executive sessions because they have the perception of secretiveness," board member Alan Stephan said. "I wish they could be open, but the law doesn't allow it."
Board President John Maluso assured ACTION members that the board discusses in executive session only what it is allowed under state law.
Another complaint: ACTION members also complained about lengthy monthly meetings the board conducts to recognize pupils and staff.
Sister Ann McManamon, ACTION education committee chairwoman, said the board's focus should be on dealing with the district's many critical academic and financial problems and that recognizing pupils' accomplishments "is not the critical role of the board."
That brought strong reaction.
"You are wrong!" Stephan said.
"It is our role," Winbush said. "It's a big deal to some of these children."
"We must affirm these children," board member Gerri Sullivan added. "We must recognize what they do."
Stephan suggested ACTION get more directly involved in the schools, not just monitoring the school board.
"You monitor us; I think you should monitor yourself," he said.
Sister McManamon said many ACTION members are involved in the schools.
"I think that was kind of a heavy comment," she told Stephan.