The issue of board members’ access to district documents is once again creating tension on the Board of Education less than two months after board member Dianne Barrett's much-publicized records lawsuit was dismissed.
The board is considering making board agreements adopted last summer on access to documents official district policy. The agreements call for board members to “make efficient use of time and resources of the district.” Furthermore, “requests for information should not be a nuisance nor burdensome for the administration.”
The board agreements define nuisance as “requesting documents within the archives of the district without pending action.” Burdensome is defined as “an inordinately large number of pages without pending action.”
Making the agreements official district policy would give them “the force of law equal to statutes or ordinances,” Superintendent Dr. Nicholas Wahl noted in a memo to the board.
Although the topic appeared on the agenda for Monday’s board meeting under the president’s report, Board President Dennis Brennan said it was not his idea to make the agreements policy. Board member Dianne Barrett suggested that the catalyst for the proposed policy was the lawsuit she brought against Brennan and Wahl over access to documents regarding the district’s special education program. . Barrett has filed a motion to reconsider.
“These board agreements were due to the fact I asked for documents,” Barrett said. “The administration did not like the amount of documents. Mr. Brennan put forth a rule that the majority of the board has to agree that I get board documents.”
Barrett said the administration has continued to deny her access to documents she has requested.
“Recently, I asked Dr. Wahl for some information about reading programs,” she said. “I didn’t get the information because I was told by Dr. Wahl, ‘According to board agreements, you’re not allowed to get that information.’ Next thing I see there’s a board policy being implemented that I disagree with and I’m not sure it’s even legal to do this.”
Brennan said the district's legal firm had drafted the proposed policy.
“I would hope they’re drafting legal policies,” he said.
Skoda questions denial of access
Board member Richard Skoda said he had also been denied documents that he requested.
“In May, I asked for a list of the outplacement special ed facilities we send our special ed students to and for the number of students that went in there,” Skoda said. “Nothing confidential there, no privacy concerns, [but] it was denied.”
Skoda asked if that was because it was burdensome or a nuisance, “or was it just because that was the whim of the administration and the board.”
“I don’t believe I denied anything,” Wahl said. “It wasn’t denied.”
Wahl said he had discussed the matter with Skoda and agreed that if it was something that would be on a future agenda for board consideration, Wahl would generate the reports.
Skoda then started to make a statement regarding something said by a district attorney during a closed session of the board, but was stopped by Brennan.
“If you disclose anything the attorney said in closed session, you are breaking attorney-client privilege,” said Brennan, who is an attorney. “I would caution you not to do that.”
“Who will define what nuisance is?” Skoda asked. “Who will define what burdensome is?”
What is a board member’s duty?
Barrett asked if the “programming” of students in the district was part of a board member’s job.
“Do you consider the financial records to be part of a board member’s fiduciary duty?” she asked. “Last year, I was denied by this board a daily ledger.”
“When you’re saying ’programming,’ are you talking about the actual curriculum?” Brennan asked. “Are you talking about a certain department?”
“It could be anything,” Barrett answered. “I’d like to know a little about the reading program—not a hard request. How many teachers are trained? How were they trained? How many students? I was denied that information.”
“I would like to go back to your first question about the financial documents,” board member Kay Gallo said. “I remember that request. You requested past financial documents that we had already approved. They were done. You had voted on them. And you wanted a year’s worth that had already been voted on and passed.”
Gallo said Barrett wasn’t asking for current documents. She said Barrett also was being “very broad” in her question regarding programming.
“I don’t understand what you’re looking for,” Gallo said. “You’re kind of being a little bit passive-aggressive. As if this is not important to other board members, only to you. I think this is where we get into trouble, when we don‘t treat each other with respect.”
“Calling somebody passive-aggressive is treating them with respect?” Skoda asked.
Gallo apologized for her choice of words.
“I think we’ve gone off the subject,” Brennan said. “We’re talking about the policy.”
Need for policy debated
“I believe Mrs. Gallo alluded to the reason we have this policy,” Skoda said. “I don’t know whether Ms. Barrett is right or wrong in wanting these documents, but because you want to stop her from getting documents, you’re going to stop me from getting documents.”
Skoda said in 13 years on the board he had only requested documents two or three times.
“It’s kind of like hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer,” he said.
Brennan said the reason for the policy was “not vindictive.” Rather, he said it was a cost issue. Brennan said that when the board was considering the installation of artificial turf on athletic fields, a request was made for records regarding all bond issues in the district’s history.
“Those are kept, I believe, if they are still around, in the basement,” Brennan said. “The only people who could do it were our business manager and the superintendent. They were in there cleaning out records from 20 years ago. For what purpose, I do not know.”
Brennan said the board could hire someone to handle all such requests, who could function as a board secretary.
“I think the board chose not to spend that money,” he said. “That’s not going to be cheap.”
Skoda asked Brennan to find out if other school districts have adopted similar policies.
“And feel free to go to park districts and village boards, too,” Skoda said. “I don’t think you’re going to find too many.”
“Is this a homework assignment for me?” Brennan asked. “You can easily check this out yourself. I’m not here to be your secretary.”
The board will consider adopting the policy at a future meeting.