PRAIRIE GROVE – Some Prairie Grove School District 46 parents are calling for the school board president’s resignation.
The move is the culmination of 10 months of infighting, tense school board meetings and outright accusations of defamation among board members and district staff.
“I’m concerned,” said Judy Butler, who has a fifth-grader and eighth-grader at District 46. “I feel like we’re becoming the laughingstock of the county, if not the state.”
Butler hasn’t been attending the board meetings, but she’s one of a number of parents planning to attend Tuesday’s meeting, the result of an online and word-of-mouth campaign against school board President Margaret Ponga.
“I’m disappointed it’s reached this point,” Ponga said. “I wish if people had a question or concern that they would all call board members and talk about it.”
Ponga also noted that much of the information being circulated is cherry picked, contains false information and often is missing much of the context.
An anonymous chain letter has been making the rounds, and a website based on the letter has been set up, accompanied by emails and other documents obtained from the district.
A group of about 20 parents has been meeting about every other week for the past couple of months since Superintendent Lynette Zimmer announced her resignation, said Rich Yelle, the parent of a fourth-grader and a fifth-grader.
“The concern was that we have a superintendent that is resigning, and we’re not going to be able to get a superintendent of any quality because they know they won’t be able to work with the school board,” he said.
Zimmer pointed to that as part of her reason for leaving in an email she sent to board members the night she was appointed the new superintendent of Lake Villa School District 41.
“A Superintendent must be confident that he or she has the authority to make daily decisions to operate the District effectively,” Zimmer wrote. “Because of Prairie Grove’s new Board President, I no longer have that confidence. Since taking office, Mrs. Ponga has created turmoil and controversy in what was once an award-winning district.”
In a response that is representative of a reoccurring pattern of hostile emails sent among several staff and board members, Ponga wrote the following:
“We were an award winning district before your time as superintendent and we’ll continue to be once you’ve moved on to your next opportunity. Your email to the board confirms the suspicions of your behavior – you’ve accused me of slandering and defaming you while you’ve been slandering and defaming me. And now you’ve done it in writing.”
The accusations of slander – in particular a cease-and-desist letter sent by an Illinois Association of School Administrators attorney representing Zimmer to the district asking Ponga to refrain from making “any further untrue, derogatory, slanderous and defamatory statements” about Zimmer – date back to a meeting Ponga had with the interim legal counsel, both Ponga and board member Khushali Shah said.
Ponga, board Vice President Rick Salvo and the interim attorney, Bob Riley, met to discuss a dozen or so questions Ponga had, she said. One or two of the items had to do with Zimmer.
When other board members asked about the meeting, Ponga supplied her notes, which made them subject to the open records law, Shah and Ponga said.
The notes contained questions about a possible connection between Brain Breaks, a program Zimmer implemented at District 46, and Brain Gym, a nonprofit that advocates for movement-based learning, Shah said.
The cease-and-desist letter said Ponga accused Zimmer of making money off Brain Breaks, but Ponga said she doesn’t know what about the meeting Zimmer found slanderous and that she never intended her conversation with the attorney to come across that way.
“I’ve never defamed her in public,” Ponga said. “I’ve never slandered her.”
Ponga and Zimmer are not the only ones with a rocky working relationship.
Another email exchange between Ponga and board member Lori McConville highlights the ongoing problems the new members and the older members of the board have had in working together since the April election that shifted the balance of power on the board.
On Dec. 10, Ponga emailed McConville asking her to apologize for a comment McConville made during a discussion on a policy that would allow parents to visit their children during their lunch hours.
“I’d appreciate a public apology from you at tomorrow night’s board meeting for what you stated at the last board meeting about me being ok with registered sex offenders having access to our school,” Ponga wrote.
McConville responded: “Only if you agree to step down as president.”
“Your response to my request for an apology is shocking,” Ponga said in an email later that night. “It is extortion. It is proof you knew what you said about me was false when you said it.”
The board and staff relationships aren’t the only issues raised by the parents headed to Tuesday’s meeting. They also point to some policy decisions, including the retirement incentive program, the lunchtime visitor policy and Ponga’s appointment as the chairwoman of the finance committee.
Much of those critiques are missing the context and reasoning behind her decisions, Ponga said, adding that any proposal she makes needs at least four board members total to approve.
For example, her retirement incentive program was based on her research of other area districts and proposed a sliding scale based on the years of experience the teacher has, Ponga said.
Her appointment as the chairwoman of the finance committee followed a proposal by board Secretary John Bowman that Ponga and Shah co-chair the committee, according to meeting minutes.
While Ponga agreed to the idea, Shah said no because she said she wasn’t comfortable co-chairing with Ponga, that a small committee doesn’t warrant two chairpeople and was advised not to by her attorney, Shah said.