CARMEL — School Board meetings have gotten heated in recent months, both in central Indiana, and across the country over mask mandates.
In Carmel, other issues like books, curriculum, and diversity initiatives have also been of concern to some parents. It’s prompted dozens of complaints to be filed against the school district with the state Public Access Counselor.
“I would say just confused, angry, disappointed," said Alvin Lui, a member of Unify Carmel.
That’s how parents with the group, Unify Carmel, said they’re feeling right now, as many have filed formal complaints against the school district with the Indiana Public Access Counselor.
“They are frustrated,” Lui said. “The frustration level is so high. They’re mad. They’re disappointed. A lot of parents have moved here, work very hard to live in Carmel. It’s not easy living in Carmel. It’s not easy at all because of the school district.”
Lui said concerns initially began over what is being taught in the classroom, the books that are being presented that address gender and race, and integrating diversity and equity training for its teachers.
“Get all the political indoctrination out of the teachers,” Lui said. “All these trainings, anti-bias training, anti-racism training, where they’re reading these pro-CERT books like, “Me and White Supremacy” and “How to Be an Antiracist.” Get all of that out of the teachers. They’re having teachers read these books. They’re having them attend the seminars. Everything is through a racial lens or gender lens or equity lens. We want to see all of that gone. All of it. And have teachers go back to having professional development where they’re learning how to be better teachers.”
Parents flooded Carmel Clay School Board meetings this summer in protest, which became heated at times. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Board limited how many people could attend these meetings.
“They limited the amount of people that were coming even though they knew that there was tons of people waiting outside at every school board meeting for the last three meetings in a row,” Lui said. “They could’ve had a bigger room. Other school districts had a bigger room. We filed that.”
On Monday, the Board moved their monthly meeting to 8 a.m. from the previous 7 p.m. and suspended public comment, citing safety concerns and volatility during meetings.
“Moving it to 8 a.m., nothing illegal about that but come on,” Lui said. “That’s literally just trying to make it as hard as possible for parents to attend. So really it’s not even one thing, it’s just this culture and attitude of making it as difficult as possible for parents to know what’s going on or to voice their concern or to be transparent or to collaborate with parents.”
The Indiana Public Access Counselor said he’s received roughly 30 complaints against school boards since June.
"Half a dozen to a dozen phone calls a day requesting assistance on school board issues," Luke Britt explained. "Typically, Boards are not allowed to limit capacity for meetings, but in light of the pandemic and CDC recommendations, they are. But, to an extent."
“Are you overly restricting crowd sizes?” Britt asked. “We received a couple complaints where they were only allowed in single digits of people. Well, that’s going to be a different analysis than those that allow three to four dozen just spaced apart. There’s also factors to consider: Do you have access to a larger capacity room? A gym? A cafeteria? An auditorium?”
Britt's office makes a determination on these complaint, followed by a formal recommendation that gets published online. He says many complaints are still pending right now, but he plans on releasing several recommendations very soon. Perhaps, by the end of this week.
“If you have an official document from the state that says you’ve violated the open door law, that might give you pause and lead to course correcting in the future,” he said.
The public has a right to observe and record School Board meetings. The meetings must be open to the public. But they are not required to allow time for public comment.
The law is silent on that, the Public Access Counselor says. So in order for that to change, the law would have to change, as well. Britt said they can make conclusive determinations when a governing body or public agency has violated the law, but he uses his role to mainly educate so schools can make appropriate adjustments.