The Examiner U-46 News Feed
Free speech, transparency at issue within Dist. U-46
By Seth Hancock
“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”-George Washington.
A complaint filed with the Illinois Attorney General’s (AG) office alleging Open Meetings Act violations against the School District U-46 Board of Education during a Feb. 3 board self-evaluation meeting has raised issues on the district’s fidelity to upholding First Amendment rights, transparency and the objectivity to uphold standards.
The Feb. 3 meeting was facilitated by the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), and was held in closed session.
Board member Jeanette Ward filed the complaint alleging the board spent “about an hour discussing” how to censor her, and the AG’s office has “determined that further action is warranted” and is investigating. Ward said the AG’s office told her it is “indeterminate” on how long it will take for a ruling to be made.
Ward did not attend the board self-evaluation meeting but later listened to the recording. She previously told the board she would not attend the self-evaluation unless it were held in public because at past meetings conversations were had making false accusations against her as well as members of the public while the IASB officials allowed those conversations to persist.
As part of the complaint, which The Examiner obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request with the AG, there was a partial transcript which showed Donna Smith, the board’s president, as well as board members Traci Ellis, Veronica Noland and Melissa Owens and U-46 CEO Tony Sanders discussing how to silence Ward. Board members Phil Costello and Sue Kerr were in attendance at that meeting but did not appear to take part in trying to silence Ward.
In the transcript the board’s majority blames Ward for causing poor board dynamics, Ellis saying she is “112 [percent] of the problem.” Sanders said that the board’s work should be done “behind the scenes” without public debate.
The Examiner asked the four board members involved in the discussion what the motivation was for that discussion, if they actually believe Ward is solely to blame for poor board dynamics while they take none of the blame and if they support a free exchange of ideas? They did not respond.
Regarding the free exchange of ideas, Ellis explicitly said she does not support that according to the transcript in which she said regarding a board agreement: “I don’t agree to ‘I will encourage and respect the free expression of opinion.’ I don’t and I won’t.”
Sanders was asked why he, as the CEO and not an elected official, would take part in a board self-evaluation and if he believes that debates should only be done “behind the scenes” and if so, how is that fair to the taxpayers for their government to deliberate behind closed doors? His response: “It would not be appropriate for me to respond to anything alleged to have been said in closed session.”
The IASB was also contacted and asked if certain discussions are allowed to be held during closed session board self-evaluations and was asked for simple yes or no answers to examples. The IASB would not or could not answer.
“IASB is not a regulatory agency and does not comment upon pending litigation or complaints before the Ill. Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor or any other regulatory agency,” Kara Kienzler, IASB’s associate executive director of communications and production services, responded.
Of note, The Examiner did not reference U-46 or any complaint when contacting the IASB.
Ward told The Examiner “our CEO and certain board members were conspiring to try and limit my speech,” and she called it “unconscionable” that such discussions as well as past deliberations have been held behind closed doors because “the public has a right to know.”
“In general, I would like this kind of meeting held in public,” Ward said. “I just think it would be better for everyone involved if they were held in open session.”
Ward added: “It’s in the interest of transparency. I believe the public has a right to hear these discussions…. When it’s behind closed doors, the public does not have a chance to participate.”
Asked about board dynamics and if she communicates with other board members, Ward said she does but “Ms. Ellis does not speak to me.”
Ward said to help improve board dynamics she feels the self-evaluations should be held in open as a rule as well as other deliberative discussions that have been held behind closed doors, and she said existing rules regarding regular meetings need to be enforced such as not interrupting others and respecting the opinions of colleagues.
Asked if the board’s majority has the objectivity to equally uphold standards to allow a free exchange of ideas to take place, Ward said “clearly given their discussion… clearly no.” She said “they clearly see one side,” and they want to only debate behind closed doors.
Costello agreed with Ward that self-evaluations should be held in open session and told The Examiner that the “voters should know the Board’s dynamics since we are accountable to only the voters-not the District-not the employees-not Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) and-not each other.”
“Unfortunately, the most recent closed session that was led by the IASB took a diverted course that could only be described as a roast of Mrs. Ward’s politics and tactics rather than how the Board could become more effective,” Costello said. “Interestingly, no one else’s politics or tactics came under any scrutiny. That is exactly what Mrs. Ward publicly expressed as her concern and rationale for boycotting the meeting. In fact, criticism by the majority of the Board has been prevalent in most prior closed-session ‘Board evaluation meetings’ including meetings that preceded my term where Frank Napolitano was ostracized.”
Costello added: “As to the overall performance of the Board, I think that this Board is stagnant since we’ve shown marginal independence and muted innovative thinking. We let status quo be the norm and defer all direction and pass-thru authority to administration officials due to the Board’s void of accountability and our collective inability to represent the taxpayers who fund the District with over $500-million dollars of entrusted public funds.”
Costello was asked if the board’s leadership need to do a better job of fostering a more open environment allowing opinions to be freely expressed without being subjected to personal attacks and what can be done to improve the board dynamics?
“Your question of ways to improve the District should have been the only question asked at the Board Evaluation meeting,” Costello said. “We should embrace lively and challenging debate rather than suppressing it and keeping to a guided narrow script. There should be a discussion of what goes on the Board agenda-to my knowledge that’s never happened as it’s crafted by the Board President and District CEO. I also know from parents and teachers that many subjects are presented to the Board without weighing contrarian positions.”