ITHACA, N.Y.—There’s been tension aplenty over the last several months between the public and the Ithaca City School District Board of Education, a natural side effect of the scrutiny placed on the district’s hybrid- and distance-learning models. With that tension has come a far higher prevalence of anonymous comments, submitted to speakers who deliver them during the board’s public comment period on behalf of the comment’s writers.

But a recent procedure change by the board has set up a debate over whether or not those types of anonymous comments, which are nearly always critical of the board and the school district, should be allowed at public board meetings. Though the comments had been allowed at meetings over the last several weeks, as the method began to gain popularity, BOE members decided to put a stop to the practice last week at their meeting, preceding a formal discussion of Policies 1400 and 1230, which deal with comments to the board.

The discussion was intriguing, though it was eventually sent back to the board’s Policy Committee for further deliberation and is sure to provoke a wave of public comments, with names attached, in the near future. Watch the discussion from the beginning here, separate from the rest of the meeting.

Both Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, the board’s vice chair, and Moira Lang, a fellow board member, clarified that by allowing the anonymous comments in previous meetings the board had been violating its own pre-existing policies. There had never been an issue at in-person meetings, and even during the earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced meetings online, the board hadn’t encountered public desire to comment anonymously. But with growing numbers of anonymous comments, Lang said the board had reviewed its policies and decided that the ban on public anonymous comments should be enforced—though the public can still send anonymous comments to board members via the Let’s Talk portal.

There were a few central themes to the debate. Supporters of the anonymous comments said that people felt fearful of retribution from the Board of Education or the district administration, even as certain board members insisted that those fears were unfounded and unsupported by reality. They’ve also expressed, in previous meetings, that some of them may be parents of students and they don’t wish to put their children at risk of unfair outcomes while still in the district because their parents voiced criticism.

Board members, on the other hand, said that when discussing topics in the public eye at open, viewable meetings which are recorded, people should be held to the same level of accountability for their rhetoric as board members are expected to be, at least in terms of having to put a name on the actual content of their comments.

The backdrop of the debate is that as anonymous comments have indeed grown in popularity, in 2021 particularly, they have also been almost universally negative—often discussing the situation surrounding Dr. Luvelle Brown’s resignation then reversal, the district’s (not uncommon) struggles to implement its hybrid learning plans during COVID-19 and the inequities that have emerged as a result of splitting classes between distance and in-person learning.

Board member Eldred Harris first addressed the stated retribution fears, which have been the most popular justification for anonymity in recent weeks, though he roundly dismissed them.

“I cannot tell you how offensive I find that,” Harris said. “As a marginalized person who had to find my own voice over many years (…) I understand the instinct. I need you all to understand that our expectation is that you overcome that. We don’t get the opportunity to hide behind anonymity, and neither should our public.”

Harris vowed that nobody on the board would respond to any comment made anonymously. He allowed more leniency for those who may be neurodivergent or have some other inescapable factor pushing them towards anonymity, but said that their names should still be attached to the comments, even if someone else is reading for them. Similarly, he said that he would accept recordings of people’s comments to be played publicly, though they would still need to identify themselves.

The board largely agreed, with varying levels of fervor.

“I saw some pretty egregious twisting of the truth by people you wouldn’t expect,” Wasyliw said of her time working on academic integrity at Cornell University, which she used as a parallel for why people shouldn’t be granted anonymity to comment. “How would we know that what’s being said is actually coming from an untenured person if they’re anonymous? (…) Public discourse is a right, but it comes with responsibility, and that responsibility is accountability. (…) When I speak publicly, I expect to be held accountable for what I say, and I have been held accountable for what I say, and that’s right.”

She called the anonymous comments over the last few weeks “divisive and insidious,” though she did not cite specific examples of comments that presented such rhetoric. Wasyliw and Harris were certainly the most ardent opponents of allowing anonymous comments, though they represented the majority’s overall sentiment. Board member Christopher Malcolm also appealed to the board’s policies, saying they had let the anonymous comments “go too far” and needed to rein it in.

Alternatively, member Nicole LaFave argued that people with job security concerns should not be shamed for fearing talking out during the meetings, particularly those who are directly employed by the district, in one way or another—and especially those staff members who have not been given tenure.

“I don’t think that I get to question if someone feels fear or not, especially if job security is on your mind,” LaFave said. “I will say that I think that’s where union leadership should come in, whether we’re talking about the district or in general. (…) While we work through reading anonymous letters, I would encourage our staff to talk to their union leadership if they feel like they’re not getting what they need and are not being supported.”

She did, though, acknowledge that anonymous comments made by staff members to the board make it more difficult for board members to follow-up with the staffers or their supervisors to try to rectify the expressed concerns.

Eventually, Eversley-Bradwell ended the topic by suggesting that both Policy 1400 and 1230 be passed back to the Policy Committee for further work and review before anything was voted on by the board.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com