Friday, June 17, 2005

Democracy takes another hit from the Winnetka School Board.

In a move that can only be characterized as bizarre, the Winnetka School Board took another step last night in its continuing efforts to remove from its midst anything that resembles a democracy.

A little civics 101, in case you have spent too much time lately around the current Winnetka School Board members. In a democracy, the guiding theme is that elected representatives, each and every one, are supposed to represent their constituents who have voted them into office. One way each representative does that is too hold public forums, listen to the questions that are asked and give answers to those questions. Sometimes, the forums may be ones in which the representative is the only one present. On other occasions, multiple representatives might be present. The principle does not change; representatives are expected to respond to the public’s questions.

The representatives might also interact with each other on a board, say, for example the Cook County Board. An action on behalf of Cook County government might require collective action of the Board to support it, perhaps a majority vote. To pick a name out of the hat, Cook County Board Member Forrest Claypool [D- Chicago] might not be able to sell county property on behalf of the Cook County Board. The County Government by-laws might require Commissioner Claypool to get agreement of a majority of his colleagues before County property can be transferred to another entity or individual.

Do you suppose that Commissioner Claypool would be barred by county board rules from attending a forum and answering questions about whether he would favor sale of such property by the Board, raising taxes by the Board, cutting patronage by the Board, etc? If Commissioner Claypool said to his constituents he would support cutting taxes, would he be violating a Code of Conduct that said: “I shall recognize that a Board member has no legal authority as an individual and that decisions can only be made by a majority vote at Board meetings.” No, I very much doubt it.

I can’t imagine that the County Board needs such a Code of Conduct. But, if it had one, County Board Member Claypool, I am sure, would say he is there to represent his constituents, and part of that is to answer any questions that may be asked of him by his constituents. That is how a representative democracy works. If someone could show that Claypool was subject to such a Code of Conduct, he would say that he was answering a question on his behalf, not on behalf of the Board, and that he clearly was not “making a decision on behalf of the Board.”

Now, let’s visit last night’s Wacky World of the Winnetka School Board. About 100 people showed up to a special school board meeting in Winnetka, having been told that the purpose of the meeting was for the Board to communicate with the community.

Many in attendance were there to ask questions, among other things, about Supt. van der Bogert’s decision to withhold information from the school board and community about the wrongful death lawsuit filed against her recommended selection for the Winnetka Greeley School Principal position. These people thought they could ask questions and get answers at the meeting from their duly elected representatives, the Winnetka School Board, and perhaps from Supt. van der Bogert.

But the Winnetka residents in attendance were to be disappointed yet again. School Board President Anne Kelly made this absolutely astounding statement:

During public participation, the Board will take notes and listen to what you say. I know many of you wanted an open Q and A format. I am also going to read from an Illinois Association of School Board code of conduct-- which is posted on every [school front] door or was posted on every [school front] door, I don’t know if it is still there-- which allows us to answer only items which we as a Board have discussed and taken a position on. It is actually No. 3 in the Code of Conduct: I shall recognize that a Board member has no legal authority as an individual and that decisions can only be made by a majority vote at Board meetings, so we will not be responding individually but when public participation is through, I will then recognize School Board members Penny [Lamphier] and Becky [Hurley] and they will give any clarifications we can on behalf of the board. But, it will all be around things we have previously discussed or taken a position on.

But, having stamped out democracy in Winnetka, Anne, why stop there? Why not call Cook County Board President John Stroger and tell him you have a plan that you think could help him deal with the Gang of Four [Board Members Claypool, Quigley, Suffredin and Peraica], who have been known over the last two years, for speaking out against the recommended actions of President Stroger. And you could also help Stroger deal with the five other board members who joined with the Gang of Four to fight back against the Stroger proposed tax increase.

Anne, tell President Stroger that your No. 3 plank in the Code of Conduct could maybe stop the Gang of Four and their five other collaborating board members from speaking out as individual board members, for the same reasons you and your colleagues have been telling your constituents that you can’t speak as individuals. Yes, Anne, you should be quite a hit with President Stroger.
And, after that, School Board President Anne Kelly, why not knock on Putin’s door and ask about bringing back the Soviet Politburo. Yes, Anne, I think you have the answer to roll back democracy, not just in Winnetka, but in Cook County, in Russia and in the Ukraine. Yes, Anne, from little acorns do big acorns grow.

Congrats to you- Winnetka School Board President Anne Kelly. We in Winnetka are not ready for either reform or democracy. Thank you so much for understanding that. Good luck in your effort to remove democracy-- anywhere, anytime. You take that No. 3 Code of Conduct, and-- well, you go, girl.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at