Friday, December 01, 2006

Fear and Loathing in Winnetka: Desperate School Board Members?

So, you are reading this while sipping some coffee and you are thinking of an issue you have that relates to your child and the public school district in which you live. You would like to raise that issue with the President of your local school board, and you figure, this being 2006, the most efficient way to do so is to send an email to your school board President.

Since your school says it is child centered, focuses on the kids and believes in all that “progressive education,” stuff, you, of course, are certain that your board president will insure that your communications with her, and any replies, etc., will be treated in the utmost confidence, i.e., your communication is confidential.

But, maybe not, maybe it depends on what the definition of “is,” is. Or, maybe on what the definition of “confidential,” is. Or, maybe your communication will be treated as confidential, but only so long as a school board member finds it convenient to do so. For example, maybe you will become perceived as a political foe, and then all bets are off.

As former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, once said, all politics is ultimately local. And there is nothing more local than your local school board. And, in politics, when a pol is under siege, it is often the four Ds that guide the response—Deny, Delay, Distract and Distort. And, of course, the pols’ favorite, the fifth, or more likely, the first D-- Discredit any perceived opponents. When Bill Clinton was first running for President, he had a bunch of women step forward and make accusations of previous womanizing. Mr. Bill's staff referred to these “problems,” as bimbo eruptions and the staff's first response, following the above guide to winning in politics: Discredit the Bimbo.

So, maybe a board member would perceive you as a political opponent, if not a bimbo, at some time in the future, and you would have to be discredited, even if there were no basis for doing so. Maybe the confidentiality of your kid and you would have to be sacrificed. You understand, of course. Nothing personal. Just business. Or, school board politics. Your loss of a right to a confidential communication with a school board member about your kid becomes collateral damage to the greater good of protecting an incumbent school board President.

But could that really happen in Winnetka, in Naperville, in Lake Forest, in Flossmoor, in Oak Park, in Chicago? Could it really happen even in a so-called, child centered, progressive public school district like Winnetka School District 36? Read on, but just be careful not to spit out your coffee on your computer. Who knows? You might still want to send a “confidential email,” about your kid to your school board. You might still think it would be confidential. In Winnetka, that expectation would be yet another example of Senator Obama’s now famous “Audacity of Hope,” line-- stolen, as he readily concedes, from his Pastor.
At Tuesday night’s [Nov. 28] school board meeting in Winnetka, a group of residents showed up with some questions about actions by the School Board and the Superintendent relating to slating of school board candidates by the Winnetka Caucus and the confidentiality of communications between a parent and the Board about her child. Instead of giving the residents an option to ask their questions at the beginning of the meeting so they could raise their issue and leave the meeting, if they chose, the Board stuck to its regiment—save the residents’ participation for last.

The School Board Members’ attitude seems to be—make the parents wait and perhaps they will get tired and leave. Can you imagine a private sector firm treating its customers and significant shareholders that way? Of course not. If they did that, they would have no customers or significant shareholders. Competition, the patron saint of the consumer- in the private sector, that is.

Your local public school, on the other hand, has a quasi-monopoly. In the case of the Winnetka Public Schools [“WPS”], if you opt out of the public schools, you opt out of a $15,000 per year, per kid, K-8 education. Of course, you can always move but you just might encounter another public school with another quasi-monopoly.

A number of Winnetkans do choose to opt out of the WPS, without moving, but not everyone can afford the additional cost of a private school, even in Winnetka. [Of course, with a fully funded school voucher, school choice program, you might find school board members a bit more customer friendly].

The display of arrogance by the Winnetka Public Schools is a bit odd [but not surprising, see here] in that the School District does need the approval, from time to time, from the town’s residents. For example, Winnetka School District 36, with an enrollment of about 2000, will be asking approval this April, in a town referendum, to issue about 50 million dollars in bonds for facilities work, with a payback of about 80 million dollars over the next twenty years. This is no time to disrespect the town’s people.

There was a time, not too long ago [including the time period when this reporter was on the Winnetka School Board] when Winnetka residents could ask questions of the School Board members, topic by topic, as the Board went through its agenda. Not anymore, residents now seem to be equally feared and loathed by the Board, especially those residents who ask challenging questions. It is as if the Board thinks of the residents as serfs: they are there to pay homage and taxes, but not to discuss issues or challenge the board members. If they challenge, then off with their heads, said the Queen [or Board President].

Although it is formally known as the Board of Education, this board has little interest in dialogue or intelligent discourse with the residents at school board meetings. Board President Anne Kelly said, as so called public participation began at the end of the meeting, “as a matter of policy, the Board is going to refrain from answering any direct questions during public participation because we want to listen to what you have to say intently.” [That’s a good one. Apparently, Anne Kelly [now slated for a second term on the Board] can listen or respond, but she can’t do both- so what is your choice, Winnetka?].

You might ask, “When will the residents get answers from the Board,” if not at a Board meeting. To answer that, you need to understand Catch 22 of the Winnetka School Board policies and procedures. That is, the Board would say that board meetings are no place for dialogue with residents; the board members prefer some other place, some other time. Best not to have any written or video record of what is said—you understand, boys and girls, this is Winnetka.

However, under the Illinois Open Meetings Act, more than two board members cannot discuss school business, unless the board schedules a public school board meeting for that. And, Board Members are not to have discussions with residents outside the public meeting context [except maybe to discredit residents involved in slating non-incumbents for the school board], Board Rule 22 A. But, it is President Kelly’s policy not to allow the Board members to answer questions from the residents at Board Meetings. Board Rule 22 B. So, combining Board Rules 22 A and 22 B, you get Catch 22 of the Winnetka School Board: the public can ask questions of school board members and school board members may answer such questions, but never in such a way that would connect the two.

The Winnetka School Board collectively says, “residents can ask as many questions as they like; we just can’t answer them in a way that might lead to a dialogue.” A dialogue could be educational and as everybody knows—the Winnetka Board of Education will have none of that.

Winnetka Caucus Council Schools Committee Member Tom Harney asked the Board, at the end of Tuesday night’s meeting, in the so- called Public Participation section of the meeting, a series of questions that seemed to be inquiring as to whether School Board member Becky Hurley had abused her access, as a board member, to confidential information about a Winnetka resident’s child and whether that abuse, if it occurred, was politically motivated. The questions Mr. Harney asked:

Did Winnetka School Board Member Becky Hurley consult with Board President Kelly and Superintendent van der Bogert before she referenced a private email regarding the child of Winnetka Caucus Council (“WCC”) Schools Committee member Bridget Albertson in a meeting with WCC co-chairs Joni Johnson and Ed Harney, WCC Schools Committee Chairman Xerxes Bhote, and private citizen Laurie Kaplan?

Was the intent of this disclosure to have Ms. Albertson removed from the WCC Schools Committee?

Was the intent of the conversation to show Ms. Albertson as being biased against the existing slate [incumbent school board members]?

What specifically was her [Board Member Becky Hurley] intent in regards to the information she provided?

What was a private citizen Laurie Kaplan doing at this meeting where Board Member Hurley revealed the contents of an email exchange between Ms. Albertson, the Board President [Anne Kelly] and the Superintendent [van der Bogert]?

How did Board Member Hurley get the emails in question when she was not a party to the conversation [that related to a Winnetka mom and her child]?

Does the board believe this action is consistent with its Code of Conduct [and applicable privacy laws] and why? If not consistent with the Code of Conduct, do you perceive these actions to at a minimum violate the spirit of that Code by using confidential information to discredit a Schools Committee Member?

Surprisingly, there was a response, of sorts, from Becky Hurley at the meeting, to the above stated questions, but Hurley indicated her response was not in her role as a Board Member, you understand. Yet another application of Catch 22, Winnetka style. And, Ms. Hurley declined to answer any questions from this reporter.

For more on that and some follow-up discussions with key players in this little soap opera, stay tuned. The Winnetka School Board is quickly becoming another Peyton Place, which was the precursor to Desperate Housewives, which will be followed, shortly, by Desperate School Board Members, of which we have seen a few, of late, in Winnetka.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at