(Cook County Record)—A west suburban school district has been accused of violating Illinois’ open meetings law in the past few years, allegedly failing at times to post required records from the meeting, and failing at times to notify the public that a meeting was being held, even as the district changed its strategic plans and curriculum in the name of promoting equity.
On Feb. 24, attorney James McQuaid, of the Liberty Justice Center, of Chicago, sent a letter to River Forest School District 90, outlining a series of alleged violations allegedly committed by the district’s Board of Education in the way it conducted a number of committee and subcommittee meetings since at least 2019.
The letter was sent on behalf of Steve Lefko, a River Forest resident who has sparred with the district for years to obtain public information on how he said the district had altered its curriculum, plans and programs. Lefko had run unsuccessfully for District 90 Board of Education in 2019, in part, he said, to draw attention to what he said was slipping academic performance in the district, as it placed a larger emphasis on progressive goals under the heading of diversity, inclusion and equity.
“I’d like the district to explain how they were able to change so much about this school district without anyone knowing in a small community like this, right in front of people’s eyes,” said Lefko.
District 90 operates two elementary schools and a middle school.
District 90 has denied the allegations.
According to the Feb. 24 letter, the recent engagement between the Liberty Justice Center and District 90 built off of a Freedom of Information Act request sent by Lefko to the district in September 2021 to obtain records Lefko believes the district should be able to provide concerning a number of meetings held by several District 90 committees and subcommittees.
After obtaining some records from the district, Lefko said he concluded District 90 had failed to abide by the Illinois Open Meetings Act, which governs how local government boards, like school boards and city councils, can conduct public business and take votes.
Lefko then turned to the Liberty Justice Center, in an effort to persuade the district to, at least, change their policies moving forward, to comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
According to the letter, District 90 on at least several occasions, for several different committees and subcommittees, has, among other alleged violations:
- Failed to properly notify the public of upcoming meetings, including at least one instance when the board “neglected to even publish the existence of a meeting” on its website;
- Failed to properly file minutes from meetings that meet the standards spelled out in the Open Meetings Act, including at times, not publishing a summary of what was discussed at the meeting, “who was present at the meeting, what they said, or how they voted;”
- Failed to properly record proceedings of District 90 committees meeting in closed session;
- Failed to abide, at times, by the district’s own policies, which require the board to post audio of board meetings on the district’s website;
- Attempted to argue District 90’s “Equity group” and its “Policy Committee” aren’t subject to the Open Meetings Act, because the group and committee are either “specifically for employees” or are advisory committees to the board. In his letter, McQuaid said that argument is “fatally flawed,” because the Open Meetings Act says its rules concerning notice and minutes should apply to “all … administrative or advisory bodies of… school districts;” and
- Failed to properly notify the public and to properly vote to close the Equity group and Policy Committee meetings to the public.
Separately from the letter, Lefko noted the district’s Equity committee was created and chaired, at least for a time, by former District 90 Board President Ralph Martire. Lefko said it appears that committee provided recommendations to the Board of Education to implement.
Both Lefko and the Liberty Justice Center stressed they do not know what exactly District 90 officials discussed at the various committee meetings that are the subject of the Feb. 24 letter.
“There’s no indication of what they were putting on those agendas,” Lefko said.
In response to questions from The Cook County Record, McQuaid said: “We have no specific insight into what was discussed at these meetings. We simply believe that all citizens have the right to know what their government is doing.”
McQuaid said they have not yet threatened District 90 with legal action to rectify the alleged Open Meetings Act violations. Rather, at this point, McQuaid said the Liberty Justice Center and Lefko would “like to see District 90 update its policies to bring itself into compliance with the Open Meetings Act.”
“The surefire way for District 90 to avoid legal action would be to comply with the requirements of the Open Meetings Act as outlined in our letter,” McQuaid said.
In a statement issued to the Cook County Record, a spokesperson for District 90 said the district “believes that the allegations in the letter are flawed and unfounded.”
“We believe strongly in operating in a fully transparent manner and in full compliance with the Open Meetings Act. Further, District 90 will continue to operate in this manner as we have always done,” the spokesperson said.