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Mendota Elementary school board violated the state Open Meetings Act last year, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office now says.
In a ruling issued Thursday, assistant attorney general Steve Silverman affirmed allegations by Tamara Abbey, Mendota bureau chief for the NewsTribune, that Mendota Elementary did not correctly adhere to the law when it closed the doors at a Feb. 22, 2012, board meeting.
To rectify the violations, Silverman requested Mendota Elementary release portions of the audio recording of the closed session proceedings.
“It was most assuredly not our intent to misinterpret the Open Meetings Act, and we want to assure you that we will take steps to rectify the situation immediately,” the board said in a release issued Tuesday, pledging to release transcripts of the closed session portions that don’t mention specific employees. It added later, “It is the intent of this board and this administration not only to comply with the letter of the Open Meetings Act, but also with the spirit of the act.
“We apologize for any inconvenience that our misinterpretations of the closed session rules may have caused and we welcome public input at future board meetings.”
Silverman’s ruling follows a complaint Abbey filed in March 2012, after she compared the February 2012 agenda and minutes and questioned several discrepancies. Of particular concern were program cuts voted on following closed session lasting 88 minutes.
Silverman said he reviewed the minutes and audio recording and decided the board properly invoked the OMA with regards to specific personnel issues, but then strayed into “the potential impact of budget cuts on the size of classes, student discipline and related matters….(that) were not properly discussed in a meeting closed to the public.”
Similarly, the board invoked the OMA to discuss collective bargaining in closed session, but “there was no active collective bargaining at the time of the Feb. 22, 2012, meeting. Accordingly, we conclude that the school board improperly discussed matters in anticipation of future collective bargaining issues.”
With respect to collective bargaining, district officials said in the press release, “We, as a board, did not interpret collective bargaining discussions to be that narrowly focused.”
(Silverman did, however, affirm the board was within its rights to reschedule its March 2012 meeting and that the board provided sufficient notice of the meeting date.)
While the attorney general’s office found there were OMA violations, the office issued only a non-binding opinion.
A binding opinion would have required Mendota Elementary, if the board chose to oppose it, to seek a court order to reverse it.
“Hopefully, this ruling by the Attorney General’s office will remind all school boards that invoking closed sessions can only be done under very narrowly defined circumstances,” Abbey said. “I have long suspected school boards are using the cover of closed session to discuss areas of school business that should be done in full view of the public during open sessions.
“In this case, the board was investigated and found in violation. It’s my hope that the board will engage in fewer — and shorter — closed sessions so they may stay in compliance with the law.”
See Related Links below to view Mendota Elementary's statement in its entirety.