The task force commissioned to study the potential closure of some Dayton Public Schools buildings cut short its planned tours of three schools Tuesday because of a pending legal challenge.
Dayton resident David Esrati on Tuesday morning sought a temporary restraining order preventing the task force from holding what he later called “private, illegal meetings.” Esrati’s legal challenge claims the task force is a “public body” as defined by statute, and that a gathering of members to tour buildings legally constitutes a meeting of that body.
A hearing on his legal filing is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Cox Media Group Ohio, parent company of WHIO and the Dayton Daily News, previously had fought for public access to the task force’s meetings, which were slated to be closed to the public and media. The task force responded by opening its primary meetings.
CMG Ohio also sought and received access to Tuesday’s task force tours of school buildings, agreeing to the school district’s request not to videotape inside schools because of privacy concerns for children, but intending to report about what happened on the tours.
Task force leaders appeared to be in communication with attorneys while the school bus carrying 14 of the 18 task force members and media was en route to the first school, Valerie Elementary.
When the bus arrived, acting DPS superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said any members of the group who were tied to Dayton city government should not take part in the tour. City Commissioner Jeff Mims said that was because of “legal issues we’re dealing with.”
The remaining members of the task force briefly toured Valerie Elementary’s kitchen, gym/cafeteria, mechanical rooms and one classroom that was not in use. At 52 years old, Valerie is one of the few schools that pre-dates DPS’ building boom of last decade.
Lolli and associate superintendent Sheila Burton gave task force members detailed data on where the students attending each DPS school live, to show population concentrations, and how many students are traveling across the city each day.
As the task force headed back to the bus, Lolli told the group that legal counsel for the school district had advised the task force to stop the remaining school tours.
The group’s bus then drove to the two remaining schools, Meadowdale and Wogaman, stopping in each parking lot for a few minutes to hear information about enrollment numbers and each school’s physical condition. At each stop, one or two task force members asked questions seeking clarity on the data. But the task force members did not leave the bus, and eventually returned to DPS headquarters.
“The tour is not the issue. … The question is meeting in private,” Esrati said. “I was denied access while members of the conventional media were allowed. I said I’ll put away my equipment. They didn’t give me a response and they didn’t give me the right to participate.”
Asked why Esrati was not allowed into Valerie Elementary after he offered to put away his recording equipment, Lolli said to reporters, “We permitted task force members to participate as well as those identified news sources – the agencies you here represent – those were the members of the news that we permitted.”
Lolli repeated the group’s original claim that all of the task force’s meetings could legally be held privately if they chose. The group is not going that route and has a public meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Feb. 20 at DPS headquarters.
“We just didn’t want to have cameras inside the buildings disrupting education today,” Lolli said. “(Media) were permitted inside the building to tour with us. It wasn’t anything that was done in secret or against the law. But others believe it was, and we’ll wait and talk in front of the judge and hear what he has to say.”
Lolli said the task force will move forward, with goals of serving students well and “right-sizing” the district’s facilities. Task force co-chair Mohamed Al-Hamdani said he’s confident in members’ continuing commitment.
“I haven’t seen the community this engaged in DPS in maybe 20 or 30 years,” Al-Hamdani said. “We can agree or disagree about certain issues, but the fact of the matter is parents are engaged, the community is engaged, and everybody’s voice being out there is a positive.”