The Examiner U-46 News Feed
U-46 Board vote denies public access to tape
By Seth Hancock
The question of what, if anything, the majority of the School District U-46 Board of Education is hiding will remain as the board voted 4-3 to not allow public release of the Jan. 25, 2014 closed session recording in which Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations have been alleged at its meeting on Monday, Aug. 15.
Traci Ellis, Sue Kerr, Veronica Noland and Donna Smith all voted against transparency while Phil Costello, Cody Holt and Jeanette Ward all voted for public release.
Holt said: “I believe it’s in an effort to be more transparent and have more good governance. I don’t think that there is any privacy that still exists with regards to this recording. So legally I think that we should be able to release it.”
Costello noted that the board’s own policy, under Section 2.201, explicitly states that closed session recordings be released if confidentiality is not needed. The policy states: “At least every six months, the Board will review the minutes and recordings of all closed sessions not previously released and will decide which, if any, no longer require confidentiality and should be made available for public inspection.”
“I will be voting in favor because it’s in our board policy. It’s that simple,” Costello said.
Ward reiterated that transparency has been at the forefront of her efforts to make this tape public as she said it isn’t about this one tape, but all closed session tapes need to be considered for public release. Every time destruction of tapes has come up for a vote, Smith has simply stated confidentiality is needed without explaining why it is needed.
“I’d like to see us have this conversation more regularly about other closed session recordings that we have,” Ward said. “It’s supposed to be a normal course of business where we consider the release of closed session recordings to the public, and so I’d like to see us have this conversation more often.”
The four members voting against the release ignored the board’s policy and gave no legal justification to why confidentiality was still needed. With the exception of Kerr, the majority was silent on why they voted the way they did.
The tape in question consisted of two parts, a board self-evaluation and a superintendent’s evaluation which was under Jose Torres at the time.
Kerr said “the law does allow a board to have self-evaluation in closed session,” something no one has denied. She did not cite any law requiring those discussions to remain confidential.
“For me, this is important because it allows board members to have difficult conversations in order to better improve the workings of the board making it a more effective body to serve the students, the district and the taxpayers,” Kerr said.
Kerr added: “If these conversations were to be held in public or were to be made public, the exact opposite could happen. Partisans on both sides could take to social media or the press to advocate for their favorite board members. Instead of deeper understanding, there would be deeper division.”
Regarding going to the press, Kerr said nothing when Ellis went to other media outlets as well as emailed her supporters to come out to a February meeting to chastise Ward for simply having a different opinion. The Examiner gave the entire board a chance to respond to Ellis’ political games which Kerr did not respond to, and while not willing to reprimand Ellis for her divisiveness, Smith did reprimand Ward for expressing her point of view.
Ward previously stated that a member of the public was maligned during that 2014 closed session meeting and Ellis has since called her a liar. Smith cut Ward off from asking the board to clarify who was telling the truth while Smith allowed Ellis to continue calling Ward a liar at the Aug. 1 meeting.
Kerr concluded her comments: “I believe it is unfair to release recordings that a former board believed would remain closed. It strikes me as changing the rules after the game is over.”
It would not appear to be “changing the rules” since the board’s policy explicitly stated the need for public release of recordings during the last board as well.
While the board’s majority has refused to work with Ward regarding the release of the 2014 tape, Ward has worked with them.
The board had previously agreed to vote on release of the complete tape but instead voted only for the board self-evaluation portion. Regarding the superintendent’s evaluation portion, between the Aug. 1 and Aug. 15 meeting Ward “agreed to take that off the table” as it also included staff evaluations that may include current employees of U-46 which gave her reason for confidentiality still being necessary.
Further questions on how deep the attempts to hide from the public what occurred at the 2014 meeting could also be asked as Torres came to the meeting apparently for the vote on the tape’s release. Right after the vote to deny the release Torres left, and both Ellis and Miguel Rodriguez, the district’s chief legal officer, shortly followed appearing to have a conference in the hallway with Torres as the meeting continued. Ellis and Rodriguez spent about five minutes in the hall according to the YouTube recording of the meeting.
Failed board candidate Larry Bury spoke during public comments before the vote to say that the only transparency that matters is that transparency for partisan, political reasons.
Bury said he was there “to raise my voice in support of transparency,” but only on the legal and time costs that the district has incurred due to this effort. Bury did not ask for the tape to be made public.
Bury went on to imply those board members who voted for transparency should not be on the board.
“Look our U-46 community in the eye and be transparent as you explain why you believe this benefits us and our students,” Bury said. If you cannot articulate specific benefits that improve our schools, perhaps you may wish to ask yourself why you are sitting on the board in the first place.”
Bury said that Ward has cost the district time and money on the issue which Ellis agreed with, but Ellis would admit during board member updates, which came before the vote, that her no vote would indeed be what costs the district more money.
“Let’s make one thing perfectly clear about your vote,” Bury said “A yes vote to release the recording is a vote to continue diverting our district’s time, money and resources. A no vote means you refuse to waste another minute of time or one more dime of taxpayer money on this matter.”
By definition, a yes vote would have made the need to further discuss this at the board level unnecessary as the public would finally have access. Ellis said by voting no “we are likely to incur more legal fees.”
While saying that this process has been a waste of time, Ellis did want more time to be spent by the administration to tally up how much time and how much in legal fees have been spent.
It was a convoluted request as Ellis said to put it off until after the further legal fees are incurred due to her and the majorities no vote. Noland said “this is a public comment” and asked if that should really be put on the agenda.
Smith asked if that discussion could be had on a later day which Ellis responded: “That was not what I was asking, but apparently it’s too confusing. So yes we can just end it.”
As Ellis and Bury attempted to claim it was Ward who was wasting time and legal costs, the fact is the board’s majority could have granted access to the tape from the start but has not which included changing its own policy in order to deny access as the majority misinterpreted the OMA.
“I had just a quick comment. There was a simple way all of that could have been avoided right?” Ward asked. Smith appeared to agree with Ward as she replied “right.”