Less than a month after the District 202 School Board passed a controversial resolution about confidentiality, it voted unanimously to withdraw it. The reversal came on the same day a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) arrived questioning the legality of the Board’s Dec. 11 action.
The resolution, which originally passed by a vote of 5-2 in favor (Jonathan Baum and Gretchen Livingston voted no), established procedures for how and when District 202 School Board members could share email or written communications from the Superintendent or Board President. The resolution was crafted in response to what was called by Board President Pat Savage-Williams a “breach of confidentiality” on the part of Mr. Baum, who forwarded emails sent by Dr. Witherspoon relating to the confiscation of the ETHS student newspaper The Evanstonian.
At the Jan. 16 Board meeting, Ms. Savage-Williams opened the discussion by announcing that the ACLU had sent an email that afternoon containing its opinion about the resolution. Ms. Savage-William said the proposal to withdraw the resolution had been placed on the meeting agenda prior to receiving the ACLU’s letter.
The ACLU, in its letter to ETHS School Board Members, said “the Board’s interest in privacy is sharply circumscribed by the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 ILCS 140/1, et seq., which requires the Board to disclose any documents that do not fall within defined exemptions. While the Board may have a legitimate interest in maintaining the confidentiality of communications that are exempt under FOIA, that interest does not justify the broad rule imposed here.”
The ACLU’s letter also questioned the repeated use of the word “shall” in the resolution, which it said indicated “that the policy was mandatory and suggested that some discipline may be imposed on Board members who violated it, though it did not specify a particular sanction. Even if the Board does not intend to impose such discipline, this mandatory language may have a chilling effect on the speech of members.” The ACLU urged the Board to “revoke or amend its confidentiality policy. Doing so would demonstrate its commitment to open government and to its members’ First Amendment rights.”
Ms. Savage-Williams told the Board that the District’s attorneys stood by their opinion that the resolution was within legal bounds and that concerns raised about the resolution were “not consistent with the intent.” She said that she believed the issue had been misrepresented in the press and public dialogue and that the resolution was simply a way for the Board to recognize the oath each took as mandated by school codes and policies. Despite the fact that she believed a Board member “violated Board obligations” and “compromised the relationship between Board members and the Superintendent,” she said she was requesting a vote to withdraw the resolution so that the Board would not be further “weighed down by distractions.”
Board Member Pat Munsell made the motion to withdraw the resolution and Mark Metz seconded it.
Ms. Munsell said that while she was agreeing to go along with the Board’s reversal, there was nothing in the resolution that was not in other documents. “At minimum, she said, the resolution asked her colleagues to “revisit and think about how to live out the agreements they had made on behalf of the students.”
Jude Laude, Board member, echoed comments about intent. Referencing the “national political climate around transparency” the resolution spoke to “Board confidence, cohesiveness and trust. …If there is not trust we cannot affectively run the District,” he said.
The motion to withdraw the resolution passed unanimously.