Is the Prairie Grove District 46 school board up to its old Open Meetings Act tricks again?
As reporter Emily Coleman highlighted in a story last Thursday, we found a number of questionable discussions in closed-session minutes that the school board recently released. In six sets of minutes between last November and April, the school board apparently discussed items behind closed doors that are not allowed under the Open Meetings Act.
Coleman and I found a number of items in the minutes that appear to violate the law, which among other things limits the types of things that public bodies can discuss in closed session. They included items such as the junior high school's master schedule, how motions are worded, the Scholastic Bowl extracurricular activity, questions regarding a FOIA request, and a candidates' forum sponsored by the teacher's union (I bet that conversation was a doozy).
If you caught the way I wrote the lead of this blog post, let's say that I wasn't terribly surprised when Coleman handed me a copy of the minutes in question.
District 46 was highlighted in an award-winning series of stories that I wrote in 2007, called "Behind Closed Doors." I acquired several years' worth of closed-session minutes from all McHenry County school districts and found that many of them either routinely violated the Open Meetings Act or flat-out never released any minutes.
District 46 was one of two school boards that the Northwest Herald opinion page said should get "engraved invitations" to a seminar on compliance with open-government laws held by the McHenry County State's Attorney and Illinois Attorney General's offices.
Whether District 46's school board has changed since then isn't as important as the fact that the Open Meetings Act has, and for the better.
In 2007, neither the Freedom of Information nor the Open Meetings acts had teeth. Lawmakers inserted those teeth two years later following the impeachment of Federal Inmate 40892-424 (the convicted felon formerly known as Rod Blagojevich). Among the reforms was giving the Attorney General's Public Access Counselor the binding authority to enforce the laws and impose sanctions if needed.
We have asked the counselor's office to review the minutes in question to determine whether District 46 violated the Open Meetings Act. We'll let you know what the counselor's investigators decide.
On a side note, I typically take no interest in comments made by people who hide behind pseudonyms, but I need to take a minute to refute a claim that was made in the comments on Coleman's story. Coleman did not acquire the closed-session minutes to follow up on a tip regarding possible Open Meetings Act violations. She acquired them because the district has had its share of controversies over the past year – a brief strike, a contentious election and an exodus of administrative staff – and she wanted to see what information the closed-session minutes held in light of them. Because that's the kind of stuff that a good reporter does.
School districts by far make up the largest part of our property tax bills. We are entitled to demanding that school boards hold as many conversations as possible about how those dollars are spent in the open.
Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.