Previous board intentionally kept taxpayers in the dark
about Erwin contract perk
When the St. Charles school board decided to start crediting the superintendent with 85 sick days a year, the question of whether to tell taxpayers came up.
The discussion that followed took place out of the public spotlight - and that's where it stayed for two years.
"If they find out about it, they find out about it," board member Jim Gaffney said at the closed-doors meeting in April 2005. "But I don't think we want to tell anybody."
"And remember," current board President Kathy Hewell told fellow board members then, "this is closed session."
Those comments and others were sealed under the board's closed-session privilege until Tuesday, when the board relented to a request from the Kane County state's attorney to release an audio recording of the meeting.
The recording not only confirms the board violated the Open Meetings Act by extending Superintendent Barbara Erwin's contract without the required public vote, but it also shows at least one board member hoped taxpayers wouldn't find out.
"When we hired Dr. Erwin, we discussed the idea of her contract and the terms of her contract, that we knew it was (available under) FOIA," Gaffney says in the audio recording, referring to Freedom of Information Act requests.
"But we were not going to push the idea it was FOIA because we did not want people to know about it."
Confronted with the quotes Tuesday, Gaffney, who was re-elected in April, said: "Did I make that statement? I don't recall that. ... If it's on the tape, I have to have said it. I'm not ashamed of what I said."
According to the recording, the board met behind closed doors to finalize the details of Erwin's contract extension.
Several members questioned the legality of crediting Erwin with 85 sick days a year toward an Illinois pension, but were assured by then-board President Mary Jo Knipp that it was legal.
Later in the recording, board member Chris Hansen asks whether a public vote is necessary.
"No, no," Knipp responds in the recording. "All I need to know is that the majority of the board is OK with this, and (Erwin) and I will sign off on it this evening."
Knipp says later, "It will be interesting if somebody asks for" a copy of the agreement...
...The issue of whether the board broke the law has been widely publicized since former board President and 2005 member Bobbie Raehl went to the state's attorney with the question this spring.
Despite ignoring her concerns, and despite his admission that the board willfully kept the taxpayers uninformed, James Gaffney, who voted against making the recording public, still contends Raehl is simply being "vindictive" after losing to him in the election.
Similarly, the ethically challenged Mary Jo Knipp, who was board president in 2005 and signed the contract extension, earlier dismissed the dispute as a “personal vendetta.”
At the end of the meeting Raehl seems frustrated by her inability to get answers to certain questions and Knipp discourages her from taking a copy of the contract with her after the meeting. A man says, "She's entitled to keep any paper we give her." Raehl says, "...to read what was discussed tonight." Knipp snips, "Then keep it Bobby. Have a good time."
Neither Gaffney nor Knipp seem to have the facts on their side.
The Kane County Chronicle reports:
ST. CHARLES -- Tapes released by the Kane County State’s Attorney on Tuesday show that St. Charles school board members questioned the legality of a closed-session vote even as they were taking it.
When an unidentified male voice on the tape of an April 11, 2005, closed session asked whether the board needed to vote on an amendment to Superintendent Barbara Erwin’s contract in open session, a woman later identified on the tape as then-board President Mary Jo Knipp said no.
“All I need to know is that the majority of the board is OK with this and Barb [Erwin] and I can sign off on this this evening,” Knipp said on the tape.
Under the Illinois Open Meetings Act, while consensus votes may be taken in closed session, final actions must be taken by a public vote.
...Knipp said this move was so “this wasn’t anything that was going to come back and blow up at the end of Barb’s term.”
The Chronicle attempted to reach Marcilene Dutton, an attorney with the Illinois Association of School Administrators, without success. Marcilene Dutton is the only lawyer listed with the state Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission whose name comes remotely close to "Marcy Dutton."
When reached for comment on Tuesday, Knipp refused to confirm that she had led the 2005 meeting.
“I’m not sure what’s going on and I’m not going to confirm anything until I know what’s going on,” Knipp said Tuesday. “I’m not sure who’s out to prove what point. It’s a personal vendetta going on.”
During the closed session, former board member Bobbie Raehl said Illinois does not allow [that many] sick days unless an individual has served over several decades.
“Our people are entitled to 14 days,” Raehl states on the tape. “So I ask the same question: How can we make 85 out of 14?”
In response, an unidentified female board member said the law allowed it.
“This is something we don’t know why,” the woman said. “It’s a loophole.”
Raehl did not return messages left at her home phone number Tuesday.
Near the end of the tape, board members discouraged Raehl from taking documents out of the session.
“It is public record but we don’t want to make it public record,” one unidentified male board member said. “I don’t think we want to tell anybody.”
The full meeting recording
published by the Kane County Chronicle here.