Friday, June 29, 2007

Post Mortem on the Erwin contract mess in St Charles

What follows are two editorials form WestChiTown papers. One opines that State's Attorney John Barsanti did not go far enough to protect the public interest and calls for resignations. The other seems to want to get over it as soon as possible, and calls for the Board to quickly rebuild trust, or else resign.
Who's right? Who's wrong? I'm not totally sure, but it seems to me that the "players" are not all equal.
Let's review:
Barsanti's solution seems an effort to find a middle-ground that upsets the fewest people in advance of his reelection bid. It looks like real action, without actually doing anything more than hurting school board members reelection chances. If Barsanti did more than listening to the tape and reading school board documents, it's not clear. Were district officials even interviewed?
One of his solutions - training in open meetings law - is laughable. Knowing the law wasn't the problem. Board members knew it when they broke it.
Apologizing for the wrongdoing is nice. But what impact does it really have? It would be a lawless society if folks were routinely allowed to escape consequences by simply apologizing. Gaffney never did apologize, did he?
As for the publication of the meeting tape - that should have some real impact - assuming St Charles voters care enough to act. It is direct evidence of a willful disregard for the law by a majority of the board and strongly implicates Mary Jo Knipp.
Barsanti's reelection campaign ought to show him as a smart, articulate and friendly kind of fellow. Running as a strong "law and order" type of candidate might not provide an appropriate level of truth-in-advertising.
Are all players equal?
I don't think so.
Mary Jo Knipp: Her mission clearly had more to do with keeping Barbara Erwin happy than it did with protecting the public interest. She knowingly violated the law, and aside from being outed, receives no punishment. At some point, however, she did receive a job with the district under Erwin's tenure. Her public comments make her sound as unembarrassable as James Gaffney.
James Gaffney: If there is a "Dick Cheney Public Relations Award" Gaffney ought to be a strong contender. His hard-headed failure to acknowledge his own culpability is shameful. He blames the whistleblower, rather than the culprit. He never apologized - voting No on the resolution - failing part of the agreed settlement with the state's attorney.
On the other side:
Bobbie Raehl: She asked the right questions and got smacked for it. She warned the board only to be rebuked and belittled. Then, she apparently chose not to undermine the majority of the board by going along as best she could, until she couldn't anymore.
Somewhere in between:
Kathy Hewell and Christopher Hansen: It was Hansen who raised the issue of a public vote in the closed session - only to be told by Knipp that it was not a problem; invoking the advice of some attorney. He saw his error, regretted it, and quickly got on the right side of the issue along with Karla Ray. Hewell was slower to come around.
And behind the scenes:
Barbara Erwin: Outgoing superintendent who receives a promotion, big salary plus thousands of dollars worth of sick days for her trouble. She, too, apparently tried to hide public information from the taxpayers. Who else could have placed her contract in her personnel folder - in a deliberate effort to conceal it?
My stand: While the players served on the same board they are not all equal. Sanctions should have been stiffer against Knipp and Gaffney...and maybe Hewell. Barsanti's solution was about right for Hansen; other board members. Voters ought to thank Raehl, and regret their vote for Gaffney. Erwin's own involvement should have gotten a closer look.
This from the Kane County Chronicle:
No trust in D-303

The St. Charles school board violated the public trust on April 11, 2005, when it voted illegally on a contract extension for superintendent Barbara Erwin.

The audacity of that violation remained unclear until this week.

A recording of the closed session meeting that night reveals board members purposefully discussing how to conceal their shady decision to give Superintendent Barbara Erwin an astounding perk, 85 sick days for every year of her contract.

Board members blatantly violated the Open Meetings Act, and attempted to intimidate the one board member, Bobbie Raehl, who resisted the action.

Among the most fundamental rights of Americans is the right to open government. In this case, the school board knowingly denied the public the right to know how its tax dollars were being spent.The board members who were in the room that night and who still are on the board today – James Gaffney, Christopher Hansen and Kathleen Hewell – should immediately resign their seats so the board can begin to try to regain the public trust.

Also, John Reichling and Mary Jo Knipp, who were in the room that night as board members and who are today employees of St. Charles School District 303, should resign their jobs or be removed from them.The district must cut ties with those who participated in this meeting.

Kane County State’s Attorney John Barsanti has told the board to issue a public apology, to release the tape of the closed session, and to attend training on open-meetings and open-documents law. We’re not sure that’s enough.

The law allows for a misdemeanor to be charged against those who violate the Open Meetings Act – it carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a fine – but that option is rarely taken by state’s attorneys.

Don Craven, a lawyer who specializes in media law and who is retained by the Illinois Press Association, said he can remember two instances in the last 25 years in Illinois when a prosecutor charged a public official with a crime for violating the Open Meetings Act.“It never happens,” Craven said.

This is indeed a litmus test for the St. Charles community. If this blatant disregard for open government infuriates you as it does us, we urge you to contact the following district officials, whose phone numbers and e-mail addresses are published on the district’s Web site:
Jim Gaffney(630)
Kathleen Hewell(630)
Robert Lindahl(630)
Scott Nowling(630)
Karla Ray(630)
Lori Linkimer(630)
Christopher Hansen(630)

Go to board meetings and tell them that St. Charles deserves better.What disturbs us most about the recording is the repeated reminder to keep the public in the dark about the contract extension. After the vote, just before the meeting adjourns, Raehl points out that the document is available by a Freedom of Information Act request.

“When we hired Dr. Erwin, we discussed the idea of her contract and the terms within her contract, that we knew it was FOIA,” Gaffney says. “But we were not going to push the idea that is was FOIA because we did not want people to know about it. You want to push it, that’s your business, OK?”

At another point, an unidentified male says: “It is public record, but we don’t want to make it public record. I don’t think we want to tell anybody.”After the vote, Knipp can be heard asking for a copy of the contract from someone.“I don’t think this is anything you want in anybody’s hands,” Knipp says.“And remember, this is closed session,” a woman replies.“Exactly,” Knipp says. “If someone wants to go for it ... It’ll be interesting to see if somebody asks for it.”

Two months ago, school board candidates campaigned largely on a theme of restoring the public’s trust. That job has just become more important and more difficult. This meeting happened two years ago.

What else have taxpayers been kept in the dark about?

Executive sessions let elected officials discuss sensitive issues without the need to tiptoe around questions. They should be used for frank, honest discussion about issues such as lawsuits, land acquisition and employees. And the rules governing them should be strictly followed. The public trusts that its city councils and its school boards are using their time out of sight honestly and within the scope of the law.

We no longer can be confident of that in St. Charles District 303. How can this be mended and who can mend it?Gaffney, Hansen and Howell can begin the process by resigning. Knipp and Reichling can further it by resigning their district jobs.And residents of St. Charles – the people who pay for this school system and the people whose children are affected by the actions of this board – should not sit idle and wait for someone else to fix this disaster. They should get vocal, get involved and let the school board know they deserve better.
And this from the Daily Herald.

Open meeting law violation creates serious trust issue

That some elected officials betray the trust of the people who elect them is old news.

Still, each new incident is troubling, all the more so when the betrayers are persons whom you know as parents of students, friends or neighbors. Because community members generally applaud these folks for voluntarily assuming the daunting task of shaping our youths’ education, it is indeed distressing when they conduct business in secret and try to keep it that way when knowing full well it is the public’s legal right to know what transpired.

Based on proceedings of the past month regarding Superintendent Barbara Erwin’s departure, it is hardly shocking that an audio tape of an April 11, 2005, St. Charles school board meeting confirms that members knew they were violating the Open Meetings Act when crafting her contract. But while this confirmation is not jarring, it is nonetheless maddening.

The tape probably would not have surfaced if former board President Bobbie Raehl had not recently brought media attention to it.

The tape shows that the board OK’d a contract sans open-meeting vote because members knew that portions might make voters ill, especially the granting of 85 sick days, apparently meant to help Erwin reach a pension after working a certain number of years in Illinois.

The sting of the contract’s effect on voters was softened when Erwin opted to leave for the top state education post in Kentucky, meaning that her sick day bonanza apparently will not boost her retirement income as long as she does not return to another job in Illinois.

But when hearing board member Jim Gaffney on tape saying, “If they find out about it, they find out about it. … But I don’t think we should tell anybody,” we find it tough to trust anything he would say on behalf of the board again.

We agree with Gaffney, whom we endorsed in the April elections, on one count: We wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know we had crafted such a ridiculous number of sick days in the contract, either.

But his comment was a slap in the face to voters and an indication that he either doesn’t think residents are smart enough to be told about such matters, or that they would catch on quickly and question it in public. Who does Gaffney think “they” are, if not the voters who elected him to represent their best interests openly and who also pay the freight for whatever contracts the board negotiates?

If Gaffney and current president Kathy Hewell can’t quickly grasp the seriousness of their roles on the board, particularly when it comes to making information about salaries and contracts public, then they should step aside and let someone else get involved who embraces the basic tenets of a public’s right to know.

The board as a whole is now in apology mode, saying it won’t allow this kind of the conduct again. Board member Chris Hansen has made it clear he’s glad the board’s conduct has been made public and sounds willing to take the heat that will follow. That’s much better than Gaffney’s attempt to deflect the problem off on the “previous board,” as if he weren’t a member of that board and instrumental in persuading colleagues to keep things quiet.

While board members are saying they won’t let something like this happen again, we don’t foresee any rush to eliminate secret meetings when discussing something like a superintendent’s contract. So, it’s left to District 303 residents to decide whether they trust the board or not — and that would be on two points.

First, do they trust the board to reveal the information that they are obligated by law to share? Second, do they trust the board to avoid granting inflated pay or benefits that would heighten the feeling among taxpayers that elected officials are bent on trying to pry money out of their pockets that isn’t vital to providing students a quality education?

Put us in the category that says the board has to earn its trust back — and quickly.
Kane Countychronicle readers respond:

AreYouKiddingMe wrote on Jun 28, 2007 8:45 AM:
" Thank you for allowing your readers to "hear for themselves" what went on behind close doors. It is time for parents of students in CUSD 303, and this taxpaying community to let their voices be heard and put a stop to this unethical handling of our educational system. How unsettling to this reader to wonder what other issues have been "secretly" decided upon illegally. "

wedeservebetter wrote on Jun 28, 2007 2:24 PM:
" The only way our school district can recover from this problem is to get rid of the problems (Gaffney, Hewell) and staff (Knipp, Reichling). What is the process for a citizen directed "Vote of No Confidence?" I'd be happy to lead it! There has to be an impeachment process out there! "

myidea wrote on Jun 28, 2007 2:51 PM:
" Gaffney needs to go and Hewell can follow him. Knipp was clearly granted special status from her favors to the superintendent. She has no education. "

AreYouKiddingMe wrote on Jun 28, 2007 5:05 PM:
" Can anyone tell me then the bottom line cost we are losing by paying Erwin for this illegal contract? Also, who and how much we paid the search firm to find her or was she related to Gaffney, Knipp, Hewell or Reichling? Makes you wonder....... "

i care wrote on Jun 28, 2007 8:17 PM:
" I have not heard of any relationships between Erwin and Gaffney etc. Something to think about though, maybe she is related to one of them "

i care wrote on Jun 28, 2007 8:19 PM:
" I seem to recall another Gaffney story, during the last referendum attempt. He and Erwin thought it best to pay rush fees to architechs to redesign the middle/grade school design. Well, that was a waste, I think a hundred fifty grand, because the referendum failed anyway. Why would anyone pay to redraw plans in a hurry when there is no money to pay for the project? That was real good thinking. Anyone remember the specifics? "

AreYouKiddingMe wrote on Jun 28, 2007 9:35 PM:
" "i care" that is so interesting that you bring that up please go to Illinois State Board of Elections and click on committees then ID #8696 and review D-2 Semiannual Report 1/1/06 to 6/30/06 listing who contributed to the last referendum. Wight and Company gave $3,000 back in February 2006 to Citizens for Excellence in Education CUSD 303. The list also included Aramark Management Services $1,000 contributed on 4/15/06, B&B Enterprises $1,000, Fox Creek Limited Partnership $1,000, James Gaffney $500, Kathy Kaiser $300, Prairie Lakes Investment Group $1,000, Melanie Raczkiewicz $200, St. Charles Education Association $3,000, SouthHampton Homes of Fox Creek $500 and St. Charles Education Support Professionals $1,000. The report reflects a total of $12,500 in contributions. D-2 Pre-election report 2005 CE dated 1/24/05 to 3/6/05 lists Barbara Erwin contributing $500, Hestrup & Associates $2,000, Jim Keen $250, Mass Collection $550 Mendel Plumbing & Heating $1,000, Melane Raczkiewicz $200, St Charles Education Association $2,000 and Wight & Company contributing $5,000 on 2/7/05. This by no means deems any wrongdoing but it begs to question where the "citizens" were. "

spike797 wrote on Jun 28, 2007 10:44 PM:
" Excellent coverage of the issue - thanks Chronicle Editors! I'd like to know more about Erwin's son doing an internship for White Architects. I'd like to know more about Knipp's education, since she is paid as a top level Asst. Dean with a college education. This is just the tip of the iceberg where Gaffney and Hewell and Erwin are concerned. The rest of the story needs to come out. It would be great if all of you concerned citizens joined forces because school boards are practically untouchable. "

AreYouKiddingMe wrote on Jun 28, 2007 11:33 PM:
" "spike797" I agree, this district has tried for too long to intimidate anyone from having a voice and even more insulting is the 3 minutes of eye rolling and paper shuffling they do when a community member brings forth their concerns at a board meeting. I for one would like to join that citizen force and stand up for change - where do we meet? "

i care wrote on Jun 29, 2007 6:50 AM:
" " I recall the 2005 school board elections. My memory is that the candidates had literature on themselves. Also, there were forums for the candidates to answer some questions in front of the public. My memory is that Ms Knipp had no college degree listed on her paper work and her occupation was a customer service rep or receptionist, something like that, for a seed company. Anyone else remember this? That was in 2005 so she could have went to college since then, night school I guess. OR she doesn't have a degree or she didn't want to list a degree on her campaign literature or tell anyone she had one at the forums. Anyone know? " "

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