The St. Charles school board violated the public trust on April 11, 2005, when it voted illegally on a contract extension for superintendent Barbara Erwin.
The audacity of that violation remained unclear until this week.
A recording of the closed session meeting that night reveals board members purposefully discussing how to conceal their shady decision to give Superintendent Barbara Erwin an astounding perk, 85 sick days for every year of her contract.
Board members blatantly violated the Open Meetings Act, and attempted to intimidate the one board member, Bobbie Raehl, who resisted the action.
Among the most fundamental rights of Americans is the right to open government. In this case, the school board knowingly denied the public the right to know how its tax dollars were being spent.
The board members who were in the room that night and who still are on the board today – James Gaffney, Christopher Hansen and Kathleen Hewell – should immediately resign their seats so the board can begin to try to regain the public trust.
Also, John Reichling and Mary Jo Knipp, who were in the room that night as board members and who are today employees of St. Charles School District 303, should resign their jobs or be removed from them.
The district must cut ties with those who participated in this meeting.
Kane County State’s Attorney John Barsanti has told the board to issue a public apology, to release the tape of the closed session, and to attend training on open-meetings and open-documents law. We’re not sure that’s enough. The law allows for a misdemeanor to be charged against those who violate the Open Meetings Act – it carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a fine – but that option is rarely taken by state’s attorneys.
Don Craven, a lawyer who specializes in media law and who is retained by the Illinois Press Asso-ciation, said he can remember two instances in the last 25 years in Illinois when a prosecutor charged a public official with a crime for violating the Open Meetings Act.
“It never happens,” Craven said.
This is indeed a litmus test for the St. Charles community. If this blatant disregard for open government infuriates you as it does us, we urge you to contact the following district officials, whose phone numbers and e-mail addresses are published on the district’s Web site:
Go to board meetings and tell them that St. Charles deserves better.
What disturbs us most about the recording is the repeated reminder to keep the public in the dark about the contract extension. After the vote, just before the meeting adjourns, Raehl points out that the document is available by a Freedom of Inform-ation Act request.
“When we hired Dr. Erwin, we discussed the idea of her contract and the terms within her contract, that we knew it was FOIA,” Gaffney says. “But we were not going to push the idea that is was FOIA because we did not want people to know about it. You want to push it, that’s your business, OK?”
At another point, an unidentified male says: “It is public record, but we don’t want to make it public record. I don’t think we want to tell anybody.”
After the vote, Knipp can be heard asking for a copy of the contract from someone.
“I don’t think this is anything you want in anybody’s hands,” Knipp says.
“And remember, this is closed session,” a woman replies.
“Exactly,” Knipp says. “If someone wants to go for it ... It’ll be interesting to see if somebody asks for it.”
Two months ago, school board candidates campaigned largely on a theme of restoring the public’s trust. That job has just become more important and more difficult. This meeting happened two years ago. What else have taxpayers been kept in the dark about?
Executive sessions let elected officials discuss sensitive issues without the need to tiptoe around questions. They should be used for frank, honest discussion about issues such as lawsuits, land acquisition and employees. And the rules governing them should be strictly followed. The public trusts that its city councils and its school boards are using their time out of sight honestly and within the scope of the law. We no longer can be confident of that in St. Charles District 303. How can this be mended and who can mend it?
Gaffney, Hansen and Howell can begin the process by resigning. Knipp and Reichling can further it by resigning their district jobs.
And residents of St. Charles – the people who pay for this school system and the people whose children are affected by the actions of this board – should not sit idle and wait for someone else to fix this disaster. They should get vocal, get involved and let the school board know they deserve better.