Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Winnetka School Board and Schools Supt.: impeding democracy?

The Winnetka School Board for School District 36 and the Winnetka Public Schools Administration are now being accused of doing their own form of political gerrymandering. Gerrymandering, which has become so popular on the Congressional House and state legislative level, is when pols arrange district boundaries so that politicians, especially incumbents, can pick their own voters instead of the voters picking their representatives.

What a number of residents in Winnetka think is happening is that existing Winnetka School Board members and perhaps the Winnetka Public School Administration are interfering with the process that results in the re-slating of incumbent school board members or the selection of new board members to replace them. That is, the Winnetka School Board members and the Administration they are supposed to oversee are picking the School Board Members, or so a number of residents think.

Moreover, what Winnetka, an affluent North Shore village of about 12,000 located about twenty miles north of the Loop, is doing is relevant not just to its own residents, but also to many other suburbs. If it is happening in Winnetka, it could be happening in Lake Forest, Naperville, Barrington, Arlington Heights, etc. The central idea of such suburban school districts, especially small ones [Winnetka’s school district has about 2000 students, or so, scattered among five schools that collectively instruct students in grades K-8], is that parents are empowered, thru the geographic and communal proximity to their elected school board members, to produce better, more accountable education than might be the case in school districts of say 50, 000 or 400,000 students [the Chicago Public School model].

In Winnetka, they add a somewhat novel twist. The Winnetka Caucus Council [74 residents, or so] is charged with slating candidates for the School Board, Park Board, Village Board and Library Board. The Council forms itself into subcommittees, e.g., the school board candidates’ committee, for each board candidate selection process and those committees pick a slate of candidates, which must be ratified or rejected by the Caucus Council and ultimately by a vote of residents at the town meeting. The candidates slated at the town meeting will be placed on the ballot in the Spring election, and residents who wish to challenge such candidates, may also be placed on the ballot if they can get 50 residents to sign their nominating petitions [which, of course, the caucus slated candidates must also do].

What is newsworthy in Winnetka this month is that the Caucus Council chose not to slate for a second term, the sitting Board President, Anne Kelly. The town’s establishment, including eleven former Winnetka school board members [President Nancy Kurz, President Susan Lumpp and Huck Hindsley, among others] with seventy four collective years of experience, lobbied hard with Winnetka Caucus Council members to persuade them to overturn the Caucus school’ committee and put Anne Kelly on the Caucus slate. One of the arguments of the former school board members gives some insight into the Establishment’s thinking: “ …future school board members… may not be willing to serve if they run the risk of the later public embarrassment of not being re-slated.” The Winnetka former school board members did note that perhaps “egregious errors by incumbent school board members during their tenure,” might justify the decision by the Caucus not to re-slate.

As has been noted previously on this blog, Kelly’s general approval, along with her fellow board members, of Superintendent van der Bogert’s egregious error in her failure to inform the Board of relevant personnel information, might in and of itself be viewed as an egregious error. [See here and the links cited therein]] But, the establishment board members did not see fit to get into that issue. Many Winnetka residents might wonder if that is the way democracy should work. Shouldn’t that kind of error be addressed, openly and publicly, by Kelly and her supporters, in their supporting letters?

School Board President Kelly, at the Caucus Council meeting on November 15, implicitly discussed the issue of Supt. van der Bogert’s decision not to tell the Winnetka School Board that a person she was recommending to be a principal at one of the District’s schools, Greeley, was a defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the Glenview School District. Kelly, after that failure to disclose became known in May, 2005, expressed no public dissatisfaction with the Superintendent’s decision. At the November 15, 2006, meeting, Kelly said, “In the future, we’re going to be spending a lot more time with Google.” The statement that various Caucus Council members seemed to be looking for from Kelly was, “In the future, we expect our Supt. to disclose all relevant personnel information to us.” They didn’t get it.

However, School Board President Kelly did manage to edge herself back on the Caucus Council slate, just barely [See here]. Further, one of the Caucus Council and schools’ committee members, Mary Ward, was squeezed off the Council in the process, and she fired back, accusing at least one school board member of putting pressure on her to get off the council [See here]. In a letter of November 11, 2006, sent to the Winnetka School Board, Ward said she was accused by a group of people “including members of the [Winnetka] school board,” of “acting with an agenda in slating school board candidates because I voiced an opinion 18 months ago that differed from the Board’s view regarding the Winnetka Public Schools Superintendent’s [Dr. Rebecca van der Bogert] actions in hiring a Greeley Principal.”

Of course, to the Winnetka establishment, as in many other small suburbs, the most poisonous accusation you can make about a resident is that the resident has independent ideas about the public schools [an agenda, as they call it in Winnetka] and is willing to express them publicly. That trait alone, in the eyes of many on the Winnetka School Board, past and present, would be enough to make Mary Ward a marked woman. Apparently, Caucus Council Co-Chair Joni Johnson bought into that way of thinking and Johnson asked Ward for her resignation, while acknowledging that there was no actual impropriety on the part of Ward.

But, dissent on the Winnetka Caucus Council regarding Winnetka Schools issues continues. Caucus Council member Michael Finnerty wrote a letter, before the November 15 meeting, to his Caucus Council Colleagues, stating:

I was very disturbed to hear that, after the slate had been voted upon [by the Schools Committee], an existing Winnetka School Board member attempted to impeach the impartiality of one of the Caucus School Committee members using information that I believe should have been confidential. I understand that this school board member produced [shared with certain Caucus Council members] an email between a Caucus Schools Committee member and the School Board President, Anne Kelly, regarding the Schools Committee member’s child and suggesting that this Committee member was biased in the selection process. I say, again, these emails were parent /School Board communications, were sent months earlier and had nothing to do with the School Committee slating process.
I believe this event and the way in which School Committee members were treated illustrates the “us and them,” mentality that currently pervades the Winnetka School Board. I further believe it is encompassed in the school board’s relationship with the Superintendent [van der Bogert]who transfers it (perhaps unknowingly) to the teachers in our schools.

Further, the Winnetka Public Schools has now received a Freedom of Information Act request [FOIA] for emails and documents relating to communications among the Winnetka School Board members and between the Winnetka School Board, Administration and/or faculty relating to many of the issues discussed above. Superintendent van der Bogert confirmed, last Wednesday, that a FOIA was received by the Winnetka School District 36 about ten days ago, but she would not disclose the identity of the person submitting it, saying she would have to check with counsel as to whether that could be released. Dr. van der Bogert did state that the FOIA would be announced [and perhaps discussed] at tonight’s Winnetka School Board Meeting at 7:15 meeting at Greeley School, 275 Fairview, in Winnetka.

Winnetka Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Rebecca van der Bogert denied, last week, that any Winnetka School Board members had shared confidential parent-board member communications about students with any Caucus Council members. Such disclosure would seem to violate various state and federal laws regarding student-parent privacy. Winnetka Public Schools Superintendent van der Bogert would not, however, explain how she could make that denial with confidence, and would not answer questions as to whether she had investigated this issue.

Dr. van der Bogert also indicated that she had not been involved in any efforts to influence the re-slating of Winnetka School Board President Anne Kelly, although van der Bogert confirmed that she attended the Winnetka Caucus Council meeting on November 15, 2006, which she said she has always done in prior years. Dr. van der Bogert is not a resident of Winnetka.

So, did a Winnetka School Board member break the law by sharing with third parties confidential parent-Board member communications about a student? Did the Winnetka Public Schools Superintendent or the Winnetka School Board members inappropriately interfere with the democratic process in Winnetka? Are these kinds of alleged activities commonplace in other suburban public school districts? Stay tuned.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at JBCG@aol.com