NYC Department of Education backs changes to state law to allow fully-remote meetings

Pro-Palestine parents who serve on school advisory councils have received death threats and are now afraid to meet in person, but current state law requires in-person meetings.

New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks speaks at the Teaching Matters 14th Annual Champions Of Education Luncheon on Oct. 26, 2022.

New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks speaks at the Teaching Matters 14th Annual Champions Of Education Luncheon on Oct. 26, 2022. Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The New York City Department of Education is pushing for changes to the state’s Open Meetings Law that would allow the city’s community education councils to meet remotely, after parents who serve on one of the councils received death threats.

Community Education Council 14, an elected parent-led advisory group for public middle and high schools in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, has not held an in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic, although temporary rules allowing for remote meetings expired in August. Since then, the Department of Education has repeatedly ordered the education council to meet in person, but the council has refused.

Tajh Sutton, the president of Community Education Council 14, said the council has been meeting remotely due to “safety concerns,” which started in October, after the council took a publicly pro-Palestine stance. Sutton said, members of the council and its administrative assistant have been harassed, received death threats and even been sent feces.

“Individuals from outside the community have been parachuting into our monthly meetings and creating a deeply unsafe environment,” Sutton said. “We are hearing openly racist, openly xenophobic, openly anti-immigrant, openly Islamophobic, anti-Palestinian rhetoric.”

The state’s Open Meetings Law requires at least a minimum number of members of public bodies, like education councils, to be physically present at meetings held in a physical location that is open to the public. Under the current law, community education councils can use videoconferencing to conduct meetings, but a majority of members must still present at the same physical location.

David Bloomfield, a professor of education policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said fully-remote community education meetings violate the law and are therefore “null and void.”

“Those meetings that they’re having online are not official CEC meetings,” he said, though he added that since community education councils are largely powerless advisory bodies, it may not matter.

Changing state law

The Department of Education told City & State that it supports changing state law to enable community education councils to hold fully remote meetings. “We need flexibility in state law to allow meetings to be conducted fully remotely,” department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer wrote in an email. 

Styer said the department is backing a bill sponsored by Assembly Member Michael Bendetto that would change the open meetings law to authorize “city board councils, city-wide councils, community councils and school based management teams to conduct meetings via videoconferencing.”  If that bill is passed, community education councils would be able to hold fully remote meetings, instead of needing to have at least a quorum of members physically present in the same place.

“We strongly support Assemblymember Benedetto’s bill A07705 that permits fully remote open meetings for NYCPS public bodies, which are primarily comprised of volunteer parent leaders,” Styer said.

Styer said that the district observed an increase in public engagement when public meetings were held remotely during the pandemic and a decrease after the return to in-person. “Being responsive to families is a critical part of this administration, and parents have shown us they are much more likely to participate virtually compared to in-person due to the accessibility of remote meetings,” he added. 

Benedetto also thinks the bill would increase civic participation. 

“I frankly think that’s a good thing, to encourage as much debate and back-and-forth on various issues that might come before them,” he told City & State. “That’s what I see as the advantages to such a meeting.”

But the bill does not yet have a sponsor in the state Senate. “The bill won’t be going anywhere because it’s dead in the water without a Senate sponsor,” Benedetto said.


For now, though, the law is clear: public bodies like Community Education Council 14 cannot conduct fully-remote meetings.

In January, Schools Chancellor David Banks sent a letter to the council “stating that they must comply” with the Open Meetings Law and summoned them to a meeting with Department of Education officials.

In February, Banks took stronger action against the recalcitrant community education council – temporarily appointing three “trustees” to serve on the council “for the purpose of assisting the Council in its efforts to comply” with the Open Meetings Law. A letter announcing their appointment, seen by City & State, states that the trustees will serve through March 31, 2024. 

Sutton, the president of the community education council, said that she took issue with the chancellor’s decision to unilaterally appoint “unelected, unappointed DOE employees” to what is supposed to be an “autonomous parent body.” But the department said that appointing trustees is “not abnormal” and is “a tool the Chancellor has available to him to support CEC’s that are experiencing challenges meeting quorum.”

“We are having productive conversations with CEC 14 about bringing them into compliance with the state open meetings law to ensure that they are prepared to represent the interests of parents in their district,” Styer said.

Banks’ letter also instructed the community education council to reschedule its planned Feb. 8 remote meeting to a later date in the month“so that an appropriate physical location can be identified and public notice be given.”

So far, though, the community education council has resisted this due to concerns about their physical safety. During a Jan. 31 meeting between Sutton and a Department of Education official, the official conceded that “there is no guarantee” that the department will be able to keep council members “from harm” when they hold in-person meetings, according to an audio recording of the meeting. 

“We are getting these consistent calls to be compliant while our safety concerns are not being addressed,” Sutton said. “We recognize and understand the Open Meetings Law, but we also recognize there is language within that law for extenuating circumstances. We are unclear as to why death threats and targeted harassment over several months do not fall under the extenuating circumstances clause.”