State education official barred from meeting

Her opposition to School to Work cited as reason

By George Wuerthele - Tribune Staff Writer
Coshocton Tribune, Coshocton, Ohio
Tuesday, June 23, 1998

CLEVELAND -- An elected member of the Ohio state Board of Education has been denied entrance to a meeting of federal and state education officials because she opposes a federally funded vocational-education program.

Last week, educators from several states and representatives of the U.S. Department of Education gathered in Cleveland for a three-day meeting and examination of the federally designed School-to-Work (STW) program.

Diana Fessler, A New Carlisle resident who represents state School Board District 3, attended the convention in order to learn more about STW.

For the first day and a half, she attended meetings and work sessions without incident.

She was formally and publicly welcomed to the proceedings by Robert Radway, director of Ohio STW.

But on the afternoon of June 16, Fessler found herself excluded from a meeting.

The man who barred the door was Ivan Charner, operative of the Academy for Educational Development, which implements much of the STW program at a national level.

Fessler said she told Charner that "It seem(ed) quite peculiar that the folks promoting STW as being good for kids, good for the economy and good for our nation (felt) it necessary to conduct business behind closed doors.

Fessler next found her entrance denied by Irene Lynn, interim director of the national School-to-Work Office.

Fessler said Lynn's exact words were, "It's just not an open meeting. It is a nonpublic meeting."

"Who is paying for this nonpublic meeting," demanded Fessler.

Lynn admitted taxpayers were footing the bill, but remained adamant in her determination to keep Fessler on the other side of the door.

"What is the big secret," Fessler asked. "What are you trying to hide?"

Eventually, Lynn admitted that Fessler was being excluded from the proceedings because she has written extensively -- and negatively -- about STW.

That led Lynn to believe that Fessler either did not understand STW, in which case the substance of the meeting would be lost on her, or that she understood STW and still could not embrace it, in which case the philosophical differences could not be remedied with additional information.

In either case, the subject was closed, and Fessler was out in the cold.

At that point, Lynn told Fessler that she would be denied entrance to another meeting the next day.

"Here it is important to note that this was not a simple staff meeting," Fessler said. "The participants had flown in from all over the country, to meet in a swanky hotel at taxpayer expense, to discuss obstacles that participants (to STW) face . . . and strategies to overcome those obstacles."

But, she said, the nature of the meetings are now far less significant than the attitude assumed by the federal government and its representatives in the U.S. Department of Education, including Lynn.

"The state board administers and supervises the allocation and distribution of all state and federal funds for public education in Ohio," Fessler said. "I have an obligation to be fully informed regarding all education matters which affect my constituents.

And that, she said, is difficult in the best of circumstances. It is made more difficult when "the general public, through their elected representatives, (are denied) access to critical information regarding the work being done to reshape our schools, our economy, and our system of government."

The next day Fessler was denied entrance to a meeting of the STW Communications Task Force by Stephanie Powers and Peter Woolfolk, press agents for the U.S. Department of Labor and Education.

They told her the meeting was closed to her, by the authority of the U.S. Congress, which empowers federal employees to meet in secret.

Fessler asked them how she could become a member of the STW Communications Task Force. The federal communications officers said they didn't know.

Fessler asked for a list of participants. They told her to file a request through processes detailed in the Freedom of Information Act.

"These people are out of control," Fessler said. "The purpose of government is to serve the interests of the people, not to develop a legislative agenda, refine implementation strategies, and create marketing plans behind closed doors."

Fessler said she intends to bring to these matters to the attention of the proper federal authorities, and to do what it takes to find out what the School-to-Work people don't want her to know.

"STW advocates have described it as being essential for the good of the economy," she said. "Why, then, must the details be kept hidden from public scrutiny?"

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