It’s worth starting with the irony: A group forms to devote itself to inclusiveness; then one of the group’s first acts is to exclude.
This just happened in Southington, where School Superintendent Tim Connellan announced the formation of a group of parents, teachers, students and town and school officials. The group was formed to find ways to increase racial equity and cultural responsiveness in the school district.
The first meeting was Tuesday night. The public and the press were not allowed.
In other words, this was a secret meeting. And the question arises: What possible value can there be to a group devoted to secrets?
There’s no doubt that sensitive topics are at play. Racial equity is certainly a sensitive topic. There are those courageous enough to talk about such topics in public, and the value of such courage is immeasurable. The courage to speak out has changed the world. But that is not what’s happening in Southington. Instead the topic will be cloaked in darkness, at least as far as the group is concerned.
Southington is trying to find a way forward with the issue of diversity. The school board has been urged to address a lack of minority teachers and administrators, and higher discipline rates for minority students. The issues were brought forward by parents, students and others after a Southington High School student threatened black classmates in an online video late last year.
In gathering the group of 30, Connellan said “we were very intentional and tried very specifically to create a group of individuals that was as diverse as possible across gender, across race, across ethnicity, which is not easy to do in a community that is pretty homogeneous.”
There is no way of telling whether that effort succeeded, because the identities of the group members are also a secret. And because the meeting was held in secret, there is no way of knowing whether Connellan asked group members if they’d be willing to have the membership roster made public, which is something he said he might do.
We do know the group includes a school board member and town council member, top school officials and the founder of Southington Women for Progress. Connellan also said there might be forums and gatherings made open to the public.
“The opportunity for folks to speak on certain topics that might be difficult for them to speak about are going to present themselves,” said Connellan about the closed gathering.
The closed-door meeting is a candidate for challenge. Groups formed by a school superintendent are considered public under state law, said Tom Hennick, public education officer for the Freedom of Information Commission, and need to provide notice for meetings and publish agendas and minutes. In 2011, the FOI Commission ruled that a strategic planning group formed by the East Hampton school superintendent constituted a public meeting.
Those are the rules, and it’s dispiriting that a municipality like Southington needs to be reminded of them. Also dispiriting is that a week after Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of the importance of freedom of information, Southington has devoted itself to trying to solve its problems under the cover of informational darkness.