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Behind closed doors: Many area school districts violate Open Meetings Act

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Many McHenry County school districts since 2004 repeatedly have violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act

regarding closed-session meetings, according to records obtained by the Northwest Herald.

Some apparently discussed public matters in private. District 300’s board has invoked closed session to discuss a lack of funds to honor two dead employees, Alden-Hebron District 19’s board discussed the Miss Hebron Pageant, and Prairie Grove District 46 discussed its bonding authority and school finances.

For other boards, to which homeowners pay thousands of dollars a year in property taxes, it’s not so much what they are doing in closed session, but what they are not.

Although Districts 300 and 46 regularly review and release their closed-session minutes, knowing what goes on behind closed doors in other districts is hard to tell. According to a Northwest Herald audit of minutes from 21 area school boards between 2004 through 2006:

– Almost half of the school boards have violated the law by not reviewing closed-session minutes for possible release at least twice a year, and two school boards have never done so.

– The Illinois State Board of Education stopped checking for open-meeting compliance four years ago, other enforcement is lacking, and penalties are minor.

– The law does not set a minimum number, but more than 40 percent of the boards released few or no closed-session minutes in three years. About one district in four has not released any.

– Closed-session minutes from several boards are so vague that ensuring compliance with the law requires taking school officials at their word.

In short, many districts have violated the law in one way or another, some for the most part have complied, and some are anybody’s guess because either they do not release closed-session minutes or the minutes don’t reveal anything.

“I am far from shocked,” Illinois Press Association general counsel Don Craven said. “My experience over the years is that for public bodies, even for those bodies that work hard during open session to comply with some of the other Open Meetings Act requirements, this is a section that is often overlooked.”

The act is intended to promote open and honest government by limiting what public bodies can discuss in closed session to specific subjects, and requiring them to review closed-session minutes semi-annually for possible release once the need for secrecy no longer exists.

Many county school districts have run afoul of one or both.

Blanket exemptions

Two exemptions cited in the law allow districts to discuss certain personnel issues or pending litigation in closed session. But because practically everything in education comes back to staff, and any action or inaction can result in a lawsuit, some districts interpret exemptions broadly.

District 300 Superintendent Ken Arndt cited personnel to justify discussions on funds to honor dead employees and on class-size concerns. District 46 Assistant Superintendent Michael Tanner similarly defended the dozen or so items questioned by the newspaper.

“[The board’s] opinion, and the opinion of our legal counsel, is that the matters we brought into closed session are appropriate, and that’s our position on it,” Tanner said.

Craven, who disagrees with many of their conclusions, said a school board therefore could take any matter into executive session.

“Then what doesn’t [qualify]? Everything deals with personnel,” Craven said. “Everything, every vote a public body takes could result in litigation, because you’re either doing something or not doing something.”

The act states that the 26 exemptions are to be strictly interpreted. For example, a school district’s budget cannot be discussed in closed session, even though it directly relates to personnel.

But District 46 discussed the “finances of the new school” in closed session in February 2006. A District 300 board discussion in 2004 on parochial transportation issues included the transportation budget and fleet-replacement costs.

Reviewing reviews

Ten county school districts did not meet at least twice a year to review closed-session minutes. Nine of those districts missed two or more.

Fox River Grove District 3 did not review closed-session minutes until 2006. McHenry District 15 reviewed them only once in three years.

District 158 did not review them in 2004 and reviewed them only once in 2005. The board technically reviewed them twice in 2006, but the board deferred the December 2006 review because of time, Superintendent John Burkey said. The Special Education District of McHenry County board reviewed them once a year for two years, and did not release any minutes.

Two school boards – Riley District 18 and the McHenry County Regional Board of Education – never reviewed or released their closed-session minutes. Riley’s school board did so on March 21, after Superintendent Ronald Rood listened to and transcribed three years of recordings in response to the newspaper’s investigation.

Rood said he was sorry for the lapse but added that he had bigger issues to tackle in his year and a half of running the 340-student rural district.

“I knew [minutes had to be reviewed], but this district was in dire financial straits and was in danger of being taken over by the state,” Rood said. “And man, that’s where I put my work.”

The regional board, which oversees 18 county school districts, canceled more meetings than it held, meeting only five times since 2004, according to their records. But the board went into closed session four times since 2003 and has never reviewed the minutes for release.

Sound of silence

For almost half of the districts, knowing what subjects they pondered in closed session is another matter because they have released few or no minutes.

It is a gray area, because the law requires only that such minutes be reviewed, and the districts could be well-justified in withholding them, said Scott Sievers, assistant public access counselor for Attorney General Lisa Madigan. But while some districts released between 30 and 70 closed-session minutes, nearly half of the districts released only a handful.

Johnsburg District 12 released seven, or about two a year, and Crystal Lake District 47 released only four. But both districts obeyed the law by reviewing them semi-annually.

Two high school boards – Crystal Lake District 155 and Richmond-Burton District 157 – have not released any, and Marengo High School District 154 released eight. Districts 157 and 154 violated the law by not reviewing closed-session minutes at least two times a year.

Craven said districts were allowed, and were obligated, to release parts of closed-session meetings while continuing to hold back others, or releasing redacted minutes with sensitive topics blacked out. Otherwise, closed-session minutes with numerous subjects but with one expulsion hearing or similar sensitive topic essentially could remain closed forever.

Also, once closed-session minutes are reviewed and kept private, it is very unlikely that boards will revisit them. Only a few districts’ records reflected that their boards revisited older minutes. The act requires that the semi-annual review include all closed-session minutes, not just new ones.

Vagaries

Some districts released a lot of minutes with very little content.

Marengo-Union District 165 released 52 closed-session minutes over three years. But most are practically worthless because they boil down their discussions, many of which lasted hours, into “personnel” or “litigation.”

Superintendent Richard Angel defended the summaries, stating that often the matter was described in open session when the vote took place.

Harrison District 36 released 71, many of which also distilled long conversations into “personnel considerations.” Alden-Hebron’s 31 released minutes, which are handwritten and difficult to read, include such vagaries as “janitorial staff” and “discussed person.”

Although Alden-Hebron Superintendent Kurt Suhr said the descriptions were adequate, and elaborated that the district discussed safety considerations with hosting the Miss Hebron Pageant, one would not know this without asking him.

Craven said such minutes violated the spirit of the act, which since 1995 has required governments to summarize closed-session discussions rather than give general descriptions.

“The purpose of the minimum requirement is so that someone 20 years from now can know what happened at a city council or school board meeting,” Craven said. “To say we talked about ‘personnel’ doesn’t help much from a historical perspective.”

Perspective is what several school officials said was needed before people concluded that items were illegally being discussed in closed session. District 3 Superintendent Jacqueline Krause said many districts kept their closed-session minutes secret because there were legitimate privacy concerns.

“When you look at the situation through a soda straw instead of the big picture, you lose focus,” said Tanner, of District 46.

But Craven responded that the point of keeping closed-session records was to include the big picture so there was no question.

“Don’t yell at us about the quality of your own minutes,” Craven said.

Our investigation

After learning in January that District 300 apparently violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act numerous times in the second half of 2006, the Northwest Herald audited that district and 20 others for compliance.

The newspaper spent six weeks collecting and examining school board meeting minutes from Jan. 1, 2004, to Dec. 31, 2006. The act limits what subjects governments can discuss behind closed doors, and requires them at least twice a year to review minutes of previous closed-sessions for public release.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the newspaper asked for minutes from meetings in which school boards examined closed-session minutes for public release, and copies of all minutes made public as a result. The starting year of 2004 was picked because new state ethics rules took effect regarding closed sessions.

Minutes from 18 school districts with all or most of their assessed value in McHenry County, as well as District 300, the McHenry County Regional Board of Education, and the Special Education District of McHenry County, were audited.

Some questionable closed-session discussions

Alden-Hebron District 19 went into closed session in 2004 to discuss a community drug problem, and in 2005 to discuss the Miss Hebron Pageant.

Prairie Grove District 46 went into closed session in 2004 to review its bonding power, and in 2006 to word its failed referendum.

Carpentersville District 300 has gone into closed session to discuss starting a district newsletter, funds to honor dead employees, and allowing the District 300 Foundation to solicit funds during registration.

On the Web

Also, find complete texts of the state Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act at Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s Web site at www.ag.state.il.us/government/index.html.

Coming Monday

Once again, District 300 closed-session minutes appear to show a pattern of violating the Illinois Open Meetings Act over several years. And once again, district officials say no laws were broken.

RELATED LINKS:

>> Why do some break the law?

>> Open Meetings spreadsheet

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