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Attorney: District 46 board went too far in closed sessions discussion

PRAIRIE GROVE – The District 46 school board went too far in what it discussed behind closed doors, an open government attorney said.

The board met nine times behind closed doors from Nov. 13, 2012, through April 23, 2013, as it dealt with a one-day teachers strike, a contentious April election and the exodus of district staff.

The minutes for six of those closed sessions were released at the board’s last meeting earlier this month.

During those meetings, the school board discussed what should have been public policy decisions, including changes in the junior high’s master schedule in light of declining enrollment and teacher retirements, and the reorganization of district positions, such as the curriculum assessment and learning coordinator, said Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association.

The minutes were reviewed by the district’s attorney before being released, and no questions or concerns were raised, Superintendent Lynette Zimmer said in an email.

Most of the items discussed over that time period fell under the employment and negotiation exemptions of the Open Meetings Act, she said.

The discussions on the master schedule and the curriculum assessment and learning coordinator positions fall under the employment exemption in the Open Meetings Act, she continued.

Zimmer did not return multiple emails or phone calls requesting further comment.

“It looks to me like they might be reading the exemptions a mite broadly,” Craven said.

Public bodies can go behind closed doors to discuss appointment,
employment, compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of specific employees under the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Reorganizing a position or deciding whether to fill a vacancy do not fall into those categories, Craven said.

“There are concerns raised by these minutes,” Craven said. “They’re not the worst that I’ve seen, but there are clearly some points where they’re going too far. They’re talking about things in a closed session that are clearly policy issues. They should be discussed in open session.”

Other conversations fall into gray areas where it’s unclear whether a violation occurred due to the vagueness of the minutes, he said.

Minutes are kept by a board member who has been appointed board secretary, Zimmer said. Under District 46 school board policy, minutes include a “summary of the discussion on all matters proposed, deliberated, or decided, and a record of any votes taken.”

“Minutes never tell the entire story, which is why closed sessions are audiotaped,” Zimmer said in the email. “The tapes can be turned over to a judge if necessary.”

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