Despite assertions of the two lawyers on the board that it could be in violation of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Evanston Township High School District 202 Board voted 5-2 Monday night to pass a resolution that would curb disclosure of communications from its president and superintendent.
The board’s two lawyers, Jonathan Baum and Gretchen Livingston, were adamant in insisting that courts could interpret its action as a violation of FOIA, an act passed in 1984 that requires school districts, as well as other governmental units in the state, to conduct their business in public, with few exceptions.
But the resolution would prohibit board members from disclosing to third parties the contents of memoes from the president or superintendent without informing the authors of them first.
And if they don’t obtain consent from the author, “the board member shall, unless legally prohibited, first seek guidance and/or inform the board president, superintendent, or board attorney prior to sharing the communication with a third party.”
Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told the board he had discussed the matter with the district’s legal counsel who said the stipulation would not be in violation of FOIA.
The action came after a spat at the board’s November meeting when its president, Pat Savage-Williams, criticized Baum for sharing a memo from the superintendent with a third party following an incident involving the confiscation of copies of the school newspaper, The Evanstonian, which contained a group of articles concerning the use of marijuana by students.
The board members who voted in favor of the resolution, Mark Metz, Monique Parsons, Jude Laude, Patricia Maunsell, and Savage-Williams, insisted that the measure was nothing more than a means to insure that the board would receive all the information it needed to function effectively.
After the vote was taken, Livingston asked that board members receive a memo in writing from the district’s attorney that would explain why he thought the resolution would be legal.
Such a memo, incidentally, could be retrieved by any member of the public by issuing a formal request under the FOIA regulations.
In the meantime, Baum said that he had been in contact with the Illinois ACLU “and they have authorized me to say that the organization has expressed interest in looking at a possible legal challenge in the event this resolution passes.”
This is ridiculous
It is embarrassing to see the board spend so much time being this petty. It is also difficult getting a first hand look into the administration and a majority of the board’s desire to keep information from the public. This includes, as Jonathan Baum pointed out, information that explains decisions that members of the public support. Pat Savage-Williams is irresponsible, guiding this board towards secrecy and deception rather than what she was elected to do—represent the public. I have not always agreed with Jonathan Baum in his years on the board. In fact, I have strongly disagreed with his opinions on many occasions. However, he is doing his job and he and Livingston are the only members of this board I respect at the moment. It is disappointing witnessing what we are seeing in the rest of the members. It is probably even more disappointing witnessing Witherspoon, who despite his warm demeanor, seems to only speak up in these discussions when it is time to make himself look innocent and avoid blame rather than do what is right—regardless of if it is able to tightly skirt past the confines of the law.
Who does the D202 Board work for – – admins or the public?
I think this spat between the D202 Board and Baum and Livingston stems way back to May 2016 when Baum and Livingston criticized Savage-Williams and others for failing to provide an adequate internal investigation of gym locker thefts that were caught on tape. Strangely, no charges were filed against the thief, which everyone knew who he was.
“Did we talk to staff? Have we examined how similar schools handled similar issues? Those are the kinds of things I’d like to see in a report about an internal investigation.” Livingston said at a board meeting.
And now Savage-Williams and some others are trying to shut down Livingston and Baum’s independence as board members. This resolution stems from Baum’s own investigation of Superintendent Witherspoon’s controversial confiscation of an Evanstonian newspaper issue regarding a story about marijuana. Baum said publicly at the time he did not support D202’s decisiosn to confiscate the newspaper.
After the brouhaha over the confiscation became news, D202 admins agreed to allow the story to go forward with a disclaimer in the story introduction stating the newspaper staff and school administration do not support marijuana use. It had also had an infographic depicting the health and legal consequences of marijuana.
This resolution is clearly aimed at Baum and Livingston to stop their independence as board members regarding controversial issues involving high ranking school bureaucrats such as Witherspoon and ETHS Principal Marcus Williams.
The bottom line is who do elected D202 School board members represent – ETHS administrators or the public? It looks like five D202 board members think they represent the ETHS administration.
Folks, it’s time Evanston voters drain the swamp and vote out these five board members — Mark Metz, Monique Parsons, Jude Laude, Patricia Maunsell, and Savage-Williams — who think they know better and that the public does not have a right to know unless the seven-member Board say so.
Sunlight is the best disenfectant. Democracy is the best medicine for totalitarianism. VOTE!!!!
I’m disappointed. I would like to believe that in this decision, and indeed in all their decisions, the board perceives their actions serve the best interests of the students and the Evanston/Skokie community. I would like to hear their thoughts in this respect.
If a violation—
I hope it would then be the Board members individually who pay the legal cost and any fines—not the taxpayers.
Once again the Board, Superintendent and others think they are above the law—and the taxpayers. More of the “WE know best–don’t question us” we have seen in city government for years.
Despite the Superintendent and others getting paid well above what they are worth.
How, exactly, does Savage
How, exactly, does Savage-Williams think she will enforce her heavy handed resolution against any properly elected board member who ignores it? Another question: who drafted it?
Cut through the fog
Let’s cut through the fog and explain what the board majority and superintendent mean when they say that the resolution doesn’t mean that District 202 will fail to comply with FOIA.
FOIA says that, with a few very specific exceptions, all written communications are public and must be produced IF THEY ARE REQUESTED.
The resolution says that all written communications from the board president or the superintendent to the board are presumptively “confidential” and must not be shared with the public.
So what the board majority and the superintendent are saying is that if a “confidential” communication that does not fall within one of the few specific exceptions to FOIA is specifically REQUESTED by a member of the public, it will be produced.
But if the resolution is complied with, how will a member of the public KNOW that a FOIAable communication exists to be requested?
Board Reaches New Low
I am very distressed to see the amount of time the Board is taking on this issue. First we had to endure the embarrasing spectacle of Ms. Savage Williams occupying valuable Board time to read through Mr. Baum’s emails at a public board meeting before he was given an opportunity to respond to her. When she was done, it all added up to a bunch of nothing. Now we have this passage of the Board’s “resolution.” I agree with the earlier commentator: what would happen if someone violated this? Impeachment by the rest of the Board? Withholding of future communications to that Board member? I wouldn’t want to represent the Board in court cases defending those actions. More importantly: why all the secrecy? What is the Board concerned that the public will see and learn about ETHS? This all began with the ridiculous decision of the school to confiscate student newspapers. The articles in question would have passed with minor comment until the school administration put a big spotlight on them. Now those articles and the Board’s actions are being talked about nationally. My how that backfired! When my kids make mistakes, I teach them to accept responsibility, apologize, and move on. Not this administration! They doubled down with an email to all of the parents defending their ridiculous actions (and drawing even more attention to the articles!). They then buckled under and allowed these supposedly “harmful” articles to be published with accompanying “anti-pot-smoking” content. I am sure hundreds of students immediately stopped smoking pot after reading how harmful it is! Sadly, this Board used to be one of the most professional and well functioning in our area. Now it is becoming a joke and rifts are opening up because of the partisan behavior of some of the members (Savage-Williams). To Savage-Williams, I say: get back to work on what matters to this districto. To the public, I say: I can only hope that we have qualified challengers the next time around so we can vote Savage-Williams and the rest of her faction out of office!
Don’t like the D202 vote? Here’s how you take action
In an effort to maintain the transparency of District 202’s operations, consider submitting your own FOIA request today. Here’s the link to District 202’s online FOIA application submission process:
FOIA Requests Can Be Expensive
ETHS only provides the first 50 pages free. Subsequent pages will be charge “at cost” — whatever that means. Plus let’s face it, who’s going to spend the time to read all meeting minutes. This entire issue arose from a stupid action by the board about the silly marijuana articles in the school newspaper. I remember in law school the phrase “bad facts make bad law”. In this case, a bad board decision.
Does this board stupidity require a referendum to change?
I’d rather see the board rescind this action and instead just act as a true fiduciary to the D202 taxpayers.
A Little Power Going To Their Heads
As an ETHS parent, Mr. Witherspoon has just gone down a few notches in my estimation in supporting this. And it was a mistake to confiscate the school paper in the first place and make the students add additional articles on cannabis use written from the Admin’s point of view. Stifling free speech never works.
Ms. Savage-Williams, Ms. Maunsell (Board Chair at the Evanston Y), Ms. Parsons (acting CEO at the Evanston Y), Mr. Metz, and Mr. Laude have forgotten that this is not about them or their privileged position or feeling comfortably protected to do or say whatever they want, but about serving the school and the public interest. This is not a private, corporate Board.The first three, at least, claim to fight for and represent the underprivileged. What will they do if the ACLU tells them they are doing the exact opposite?
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