Oak Park-River Forest District 200 considers limit on board comments
Updated: November 19, 2012 1:14PM
OAK PARK — Are school board members limited in what they can say or introduce at a public meeting?
Such questions linger over Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 following a proposal to curtail open comments by board members at monthly Board of Education meetings.
The matter arose at the board’s Sept. 27 meeting. Board Member Valerie Fisher suggested removing a section on “Board of Education comments” from future meetings.
“There is no requirement that we have such a section,” she said. “I think it just encourages a wrong approach to board governance.”
Fisher said the monthly agenda item became a board practice during the tenure of former board president Barry Greenwald, and was intended for board members to report their activities as community liaisons.
“I think that purpose has become corrupted, that it’s being used as a platform for individual positions by board members,” she said. “Frankly, I believe these individual comments have consequences.”
That evening, Board Member Sharon Patchak-Layman used her time to introduce the idea of hosting District 97 at the high school to consolidate resources.
She also sought support to incorporate an “equity and excellence” statement into policy. Patchak-Layman distributed the statement, which details a commitment to ending racial disparities in achievement, a week earlier at a Policy Committee meeting.
While both of Patchak-Layman’s comments were “interesting concepts,” Fisher said, there was a better time and place to discuss them.
“Seeking some kind of individual response is not the way a board governs,” she said.
Board Vice President John Phelan and Secretary Amy McCormack said they would support Fisher’s proposal.
“I’ve seen many board members abuse it,” herself included, McCormack said. “I don’t think anyone intentionally does that, but it’s not how boards should govern.”
Dietra Millard said opportunities exist for board members to bring forth ideas and voice their opinion, such as asking for a matter to be placed on a future agenda. She has noticed board members making more comments closer to elections, in order to establish position.
“It wasn’t intended as a soapbox,” she said.
Patchak-Layman suggested adding “other business” to the board’s agenda might suit its needs.
Board member Ralph Lee said it is important to uphold a board member’s right to voice their opinion, whether agreeable or not. He doesn’t believe the board suffers as a result of individual statements.
While he considered Patchak-Layman’s comments wrong, “I think it would be even more wrong to put a muzzle on her,” Lee said.
Anthony Ficarelli, a senior school law partner with Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, who has spent two decades advising and representing Illinois school districts, said it is typically up to a board’s discretion as to how to run meetings.
Ficarelli does not represent District 200.
“A school board has wide latitude to set up an agenda, so long as it is consistent with the Open Meetings Act,” he said.
Public bodies supported by tax revenue, such as school districts, are subject to compliance with state laws that protect the public access. Ficarelli said the public must have the opportunity to speak at meetings, but the act does not specify a similar requirement regarding board member comments.
Board President Terry Finnegan said District 200 has struggled with board governance. He said he and Superintendent Steven Isoye would solicit input from the Illinois State Board of Education or the district’s attorneys regarding board comments.
Officials are expected to discuss the issue further at the Oct. 16 Policy Committee meeting, District 200 Communications and Community Relations Director Karin Sullivan said.~.