D-46 school board to do better, president says

PRAIRIE GROVE – The District 46 school board plans to issue clearer agendas and go through more training, the board's president said.

Board President Margaret Ponga, who took office after the April election, apologized for any Open Meetings Act violations that may have occurred, adding that if any were made, she didn't think it was intentional.

"I believe in learning lessons from our forebears and not making mistakes because we've learned from them," she said.

The board is looking into getting additional training provided by the Public Access Counselor – the branch of the Attorney General's Office charged with reviewing disputes over open meetings and records requests, she said.

The school board already has received Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act training through the Illinois Association of School Boards.

The school board also plans on being more specific about why it's going into closed session and putting more information on its agendas about the reason whenever possible, Ponga said. The minutes also will have more and better descriptions of what was talked about.

The move followed a Northwest Herald article detailing possible violations made by the school board from Nov. 13, 2012, through April 23, 2013. Minutes for six of the nine closed-door sessions held during that time were released in June.

The minutes indicated the board discussed 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.

Those should have been public policy decisions, Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said at the time.

Superintendent Lynette Zimmer disagreed, saying in an email that they fell under the employment exemption of the Open Meetings Act. The minutes also were reviewed by the district’s attorney before being released, and no questions or concerns were raised, she said.

The Northwest Herald requested a review to find out whether any violations occurred, but the 60-day time limit had elapsed, meaning the Attorney General's Office Public Access Counselor couldn't conduct an investigation.

"We have to be squeaky clean," Ponga said. "It's not because of the exposure. It's because it's the right thing to do."

She pointed to the board's meeting Tuesday evening when its former business manager, Andy Searle, will give a financial overview of the district and the board will conduct an exit interview with him.

Searle's contract was up at the end of June.

The board originally had planned on conducting the exit interview in closed session, but because Searle is a former employee, Ponga had asked district staff to double-check with the Public Access Counselor on whether that discussion could be closed.

The Public Access Counselor advised that while the district could argue for it, it probably should be public, and so the board plans on holding the exit interview during open session.

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