The Examiner U-46 News Feed
Former board member challenges U-46 process
By Seth Hancock
Section 1 of the Illinois Open Meetings Act states: “It is the public policy of this State that public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and that the people have a right to be informed as to the conduct of their business. In order that the people shall be informed, the General Assembly finds and declares that it is the intent of this Act to ensure that the actions of public bodies be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”
The Board of Education in School District U-46 may have made decisions behind closed doors with no transparency for the public according to former board member Cody Holt, who was unsuccessful in his reelection bid in April.
Holt recently spoke with The Examiner because he felt the public deserves to know about the process, but he wanted to wait until contract negotiations were complete with the district’s transportation union.
Earlier this month the board approved a new contract with the District U-46 Transportation Union (DUTU) that guarantees automatic pay raises each year. Board members Phil Costello and Jeanette Ward were the lone no votes on the contract.
Ward said the contract was fiscally irresponsible as the taxpayers could have saved millions more had a plan to outsource half of the busing gone through, and Costello wanted an incentive-based contract and the “purported savings” claimed by the administration and were not “negotiated concessions but rather untenable, structural inefficiencies.”
Holt had already vacated his seat by the time of that contract vote, but he was involved in closed session discussions earlier this year regarding the plan to outsource. The board did not have a single public discussion on the plan, but it did make a deliberation behind closed doors according to Holt.
“Initially the administration brought forth the recommendation to either decide to outsource or not outsource, and in closed session the board took a straw poll and decided we would not move forward with outsourcing,” said Holt, the straw poll occurring at the Feb. 27 meeting.
Holt added: “The taxpayers of this district deserved better than what the board majority gave them in the most recent contract, and this is a perfect example of what public sector unions do to the taxpayers. The students, the parents and the taxpayers of this district deserve better than what they got in this current contract.”
Although the board is not legally allowed to take votes in closed session, it does so through the practice of straw polls according to Holt who said they have been used on other key issues in the past “at the behest of president (Donna) Smith.” Holt disagreed with the practice, but he did say the administration claimed straw polls were legally justified.
“It was not a transparent process,” Holt said. “Quite frankly we could have put more money back in the classroom. We could have lowered the burden on taxpayers, especially this year in which the district is receiving less money from the state of Illinois. We could have saved a lot of money.”
The administration had put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) and received a 308-page proposal from First Student which said it could save the district $3.9 million over three years primarily through efficiency measures that could have alleviated overcrowded facilities and the utilization of U-46’s two radio frequencies as the district currently can only use one.
However, Holt said the savings would have been much more, closer to double that figure, according to the administration, but the public never got a chance to hear how because all of the board’s discussions were done behind closed doors.
“There were savings that unfortunately the administration didn’t make public during the negotiation process,” said Holt who added the savings “would have been around $8 million in a three year period.”
Part of that additional savings may have come from the district no longer needing to maintain as many buses in its fleet. In May, the district administration said it would not be able to keep up with the district’s age and obsolescence plan with buses because of fiscal uncertainty from the state.
“I would have decided to outsource had we had the opportunity,” Holt said. “However, organized labor and public sector unions with the bus driver’s union, they decided to launch a campaign against outsourcing and they bought yard signs, they bought other campaign materials and they waged a public relations war with a lot of false information.”
Holt said that he felt the administration gave conflicting opinions on whether or not to outsource in closed session, some seeming more supportive and others opposed. He said U-46 CEO Tony Sanders recommended against it because the new director of transportation, who will start this upcoming school year, “did not feel like it was in the best interest of the school district to do so.”
“As a board member, I felt like that was inappropriate for a sitting CEO to intervene in the board’s discussion on whether or not we should outsource,” Holt said. “It was in the best interest of the taxpayers, and quite frankly the students of the school district to outsource.”
Holt did not say who supported the outsourcing measure and who opposed it, but he said he felt the board’s majority made its decision based on politics rather than looking out for the taxpayers.
“The board majority did not want to RIF (Reduction in Force) the public sector union workers at a public meeting, my belief is because they were funded by those same public sector union bosses and they wanted to continue to do the bidding of their union bosses,” said Holt who added the unions “decided to run a campaign of misinformation and scare tactics saying that the most vulnerable students were going to be at risk when the most vulnerable students would have had better buses and a better quality service at a lower cost.”
During the recent board election Smith and Veronica Noland, who were reelected, and Melissa Owens, who won Holt’s seat, were endorsed by the district’s unions, and current board members Traci Ellis and Sue Kerr were endorsed by the unions in 2015.
The Examiner asked the entire board, except for Owens as she was not on the board during the outsourcing discussion, if a straw poll was used to kill the measure and if they would support making all closed session discussions on the proposal public. Costello and Ward were the only ones to respond. They neither confirmed or denied the straw poll, but they supported the release of the discussions.
“Discussions regarding First Student took place in closed session in the context of contract negotiations with our Transportation Union,” Ward said. “Yes, I would support making these conversations public.”
“I have always supported making almost all tapes of closed sessions available to the public except in the case of civil or criminal matters regarding students and will continue to do so,” Costello said. “In my estimation, not only would releasing tapes make our deliberations more transparent to the public but I believe it would guide the tenure of professional debate to focus on issues, facts, objectives and outcomes.”
Costello added: “While I don’t recall the actual discussion that terminated our interest with First Student, I do recall that the board was given information that certain quality issues existed that were key factors in discounting their proposal. As an individual board member, I reached out to a separate transportation competitor who felt that his business could have offered U-46 a good value (in terms of safety, performance and cost) if the request for proposal (RFP) was issued to attract a broader base of vendors. In general, I have seen a narrow response to our RFP language that appeared to preclude industry-wide bids.”