Sunday, July 31, 2005

When School Boards Meltdown: Who's Looking Out For The Kids?

This is what happens when bickering school board members decide to settle their differences in court rather than act like adults:
In the days after Judy Cates' election to the Belleville Township High School Board of Education, Superintendent Brent Clark's phone rang with calls from local lawyers predicting he'd have a lawsuit on his desk in 90 days.

"It only took us 60," Clark said last week.

Last month, Cates sued the district, accusing it of violating parts of
Illinois' freedom of information laws.

The board filed a countersuit last week. It claims Cates shouldn't have
attached bills and letters from the school district's attorneys because those
documents are protected by attorney-client privilege from public viewing.

Squabbling school boards are nothing new. But a feuding board with one of the Metro East area's most tenacious trial lawyers at its center can shift
differences of opinion from closed meetings to the courthouse.

Cates, a former prosecutor and now a prominent plaintiff's lawyer, doesn't
apologize for repeatedly calling out the district's officials. She ran for the
board, she said, because the board's business needs to be conducted more

A Belleville East graduate and mother of three, Cates started attending School Board meetings last year when the board was considering a dress code for high school students. But her decision to run stemmed from a larger concern, she said.

"I was very outspoken about the dress code, but I was more outspoken about how (the board) wouldn't respond to people," Cates said.

"I told everyone I believe strongly in the public's right to know, and it's
going to stop here."

She plans to challenge the board Monday night for suing her. She wants to know when the board met to authorize the suit.

The district's countersuit "is another example of the district wanting to keep people in the dark," Cates said.

Out of the seven candidates running for election last April, Cates received the most votes. Her suit already has created a "better environment," she said.

But that depends on whom you ask.

Clark said Cates' suit and requests for records have cost the district about
$20,000 in legal fees and employee time. There are tense moments in board meetings now, he said, and a "delicate threshold" during conversation. At a recent meeting, Cates repeatedly questioned items on the agenda - providing a refreshing air of debate to some, unnecessary controversy to others.

The district decided to sue "because we feel like we need to," Clark said. "We want to deal with the issues and then move on."

Fellow board member Al Scharf said he has nothing but respect for Cates. He's sparred with her during committee meetings, but it's professional, he said. He said he hopes collegiality can be restored.

"Any board member has the legal right to raise the issues she is raising," Scharf said, adding that it's unfortunate it's ended up in court.

According to Ben Schwarm, associate executive director of the Illinois School Boards Association, a splintered board isn't unusual. But swapping lawsuits is.

"I wouldn't say that was an optimal situation for a district," Schwarm said. "When you have a splintered board, it can be uncomfortable for the board, the superintendent and the community."

But personality conflicts are bound to arise when seven people - with district residence as their only commonality - meet monthly to make decisions, Schwarm said. Those different perspectives are valuable, he said, but they also can lead to contention.

Consider the St. Louis School Board, where personalities also have clashed and arguments occasionally have ended up in court.

Just months after their election in 2001, former board members Amy Hilgemann and Rochell Moore sued to force the St. Louis School Board president to tell them who ordered the district's law firm to investigate the two. The rest of the board was upset over a mailing Hilgemann and Moore sent to the city's Board of Aldermen and the Missouri School Boards Association that included an alternate budget the two had prepared.

Hilgemann said Friday that she has no regrets about suing for access to records because board members should have access to any that they request. When a district hesitates, the logical conclusion is that it has something to hide, she said.

In 2004, William Roberti, the acting superintendent, sued then-board member Bill Haas for slander, after Haas suggested several times that Roberti was closing an elementary school because of a back-door deal.

Schwarm said most board conflicts are resolved with time, training and experience. But those remedies are harder to apply once a quarrel reaches a courthouse.
Over at Dave Shearon's place, he has a quote by Mark Twain:
"First, God created idiots. That was for practice. Then he created school boards."
When I read about examples of interpersonal combat conflict on school boards such as those being waged among members of the Belleville and St. Louis boards, I have to think that Twain must have been on to something.
View the latest edition of The Carnival Of Education, guest hosted by Jenny D, over there. See entry guidelines for the next edition, right here.

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