CRYSTAL LAKE – The Community High School District 155 Board recently met to discuss eliminating administrative and teaching positions, declining enrollment, pressure from residents to lower property taxes, a timeline for closing the Haber Oaks Campus, a proposal to reduce physical education classes from five days a week to three and a “credibility gap.”
All of that and more was discussed under a single item on the agenda for the board’s Strategic Planning Committee meeting Thursday. The item on the agenda posted at the district’s office and on its website said “Presentation and discussion of proposed staffing and curricular adjustments for the 2018-2019 school year.”
No additional description or documentation was easily available to members of the public before the meeting.
D-155 offers minimal meeting information
Unlike other McHenry County school districts and taxing bodies, District 155 doesn’t post board packets or other information on what elected officials will discuss before they meet. In contrast, other districts, including Woodstock School District 200, post more information ahead of meetings.
Crystal Lake resident John Pletz, who ran for a District 155 board seat in the April election but came up short, took issue with District 155’s committee meeting agendas, which are even less descriptive than the board meeting agendas.
“For a committee meeting, it’d be nice to have that background information,” he said. “I often have to ask for it. I don’t want to be critical, but it just seems like it should be readily available.”
District 155 officials have said they will improve transparency with district residents in 2018 and will discuss whether to begin posting board meeting agenda packets online, as other area districts have done for years.
District 155 only posts an agenda for its monthly meetings. It does not include supporting documents, such as financial reports, cost estimates, memos and background information related to requests that come before the board or its committees. All such documents are considered open for public viewing. The state’s Open Meetings Act doesn’t require board packets to be posted.
Nonetheless, Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47, Huntley School District 158 and District 200 post supporting documents online.
Even with an annual budget close to $110 million, District 155 never makes such documents available online before meetings.
District 155 Interim Superintendent Steve Olson said the district’s policies do not address what should or shouldn’t be posted with an agenda.
Having stepped into the role in August after the unexpected resignation of former Superintendent Johnnie Thomas, Olson said the district has been following past practices.
“My focus, as a building principal for six years, wasn’t immersed in the board agenda,” Olson said.
Changes might be coming, he said.
“I want to make sure there’s trust in how we’re operating, and you do that by creating transparency,” Olson said. “I think you’ll find, over the next few months, you’ll see improvements in how we provide information to folks.”
Districts use software
to improve transparency
District 47, the largest feeder district for District 155, uses interactive BoardDocs Pro software on its website that allows people to click on various items on an agenda to view information related to a request of the board. Several items, but not all, on any given agenda have attached documents and/or presentations that provide background and context to what the board will discuss or vote on.
District 47 went live with BoardDocs in February 2014. There was a one-time cost of $18,000 for implementation of the software, including data conversion and training. The district pays an annual subscription of $12,000.
In a statement, District 47 said it “routinely posts presentations and other supporting documents related to board governance on the district website.”
“It is our belief that making this information readily available to those interested and vested in District 47 helps promote transparency and create a more educated and informed community,” District 47 Superintendent Kathy Hinz said in the statement.
Working documents, or documents in draft form that pertain to a topic to be introduced or discussed at an upcoming District 47 board meeting, are posted for public view after the meeting.
Olson said he looked at District 47’s board agenda portal.
“Their utilization of BoardDocs is something we’re going to look into,” Olson said. “We will probably push to make the information more user-friendly.”
District 155 Board President Adam Guss said he plans to look at what other districts make available to the public along with agendas before meetings.
“There’s no shame in increasing transparency,” Guss said. “I’m not proud of it, but it’s one of those things that we haven’t got to yet.”
Similar to District 47, District 200 offers interactive BoardBooks software, where residents can click on links for background information. Like District 47, District 200 includes monthly financial reports and details on contracts with service providers. The BoardBooks program costs about $2,000 annually, District 200 officials said.
District 200 Superintendent Mike Moan said the district started posting interactive meeting agendas with background information online two years ago to provide the public as much information and transparency as possible.
The administration talked with the board about making meeting information more accessible to the public online, and the board supported the move.
Olson noted that the District 155 board decided in April to start broadcasting its board meetings live on YouTube, and it is one of the few in the county to do so.
The push for more information
For years, the Illinois Policy Institute has fought for local governments and school districts to increase transparency and accountability, including maintaining websites that provide access to documents about budgets, spending and operations.
“Whether at the national, state or local level, democracy only works with true transparency,” Illinois Policy Institute media relations manager Kayla Weems said. “Everyone should have access to the information they need to participate in conversations about government decisions. Officials need to provide that information.”
Pletz said he thinks it’s a good idea to post supplemental information with the meeting agendas. He said he wished the district would post information further in advance than two or three days before the meeting, although it satisfies the Open Meetings Act requirement of posting at least 48 hours before the meeting starts.
District 26 posts packets after meetings
In Cary School District 26, residents can go to the “Board of Education” tab on its website and view board and committee meeting agenda packets after meetings.
Not only does District 155 not post packets before meetings, they aren’t posted after meetings either.
The monthly agenda packets for the District 26 board’s finance committee include a treasurer’s report; a pie graph that charts year-to-date revenues and expenditures; and a “calendarized” budget that lists past and future revenues and expenditures for each month of the fiscal year.
Like many districts, in-depth discussions often take place at committee meetings. The agenda packets coincide with that, District 26 board President Scott Coffey said.
“Committee meetings might have more robust content,” Coffey said. “At board meetings, it’s more of a high-level view. Our current policy is to post those board meeting packets the day after on the website, or as soon as we can.”
Coffey said if residents were to ask the district to post its meeting agenda packets online before monthly meetings, he wouldn’t have a problem with discussing it.
New leadership may take different approach
Olson hasn’t completed his first year as superintendent in day-to-day administrative duties. The board itself has relatively new leadership, too.
The District 155 board chose new leaders – Guss and board Vice President Jason Blake – in May.
Guss, who first was elected to the board in 2015, while Blake won a seat in April, echoed Olson’s comments regarding online board packets in addition to agendas.
“It’s kind of just how it’s been done,” Guss said. “As a board, we’re still new. And Steve [Olson] is even newer [to his role]. We all have ideas, and it takes time to work through them all.”
How exactly the district proceeds needs a bit more board discussion, Guss said, but he added that it “makes all the sense in the world” to put the packets online.
“It’s all public information anyway,” he said. “I don’t see any reason to keep it as close to the vest as we have.”
Closing the ‘credibility gap’
In a meeting of the Strategic Planning Committee on Thursday night, Olson laid out a district goal to “with each decision, keep stakeholders in mind and inform them with sound information to avoid speculation.” He noted that the district has a “credibility gap” it needs to work on.
Olson said that although financials are shared under the “Finance and Operations” tab of the district’s website, they could be included in a monthly agenda packet. The district’s monthly treasurer’s report is offered in that section of the website, but the most recent version is from October.
Other districts include a treasurer’s report from the most recent month in their agendas.
“That will be shifted into the board side of things,” Olson said. “The last thing I want to do is make people jump through hoops if they want to be conscious of what we’re doing in 155.”