Former candidate suing Glen Ellyn Dist. 41 over emails

A former candidate for the Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 school board is asking a DuPage County judge to order the district to turn over emails from members of the teachers union about their efforts to "screen, vet and recommend candidates" for election to the board next spring.

Jeff Cooper, who lives in an unincorporated area near Glen Ellyn, has filed a lawsuit claiming the district violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act by withholding the emails.

A status hearing on the lawsuit is set for 9 a.m. Aug. 18.

The day after the district denied his FOIA request for copies of the emails, Superintendent Paul Gordon wrote Cooper that the district was considering whether the employee communications in question amounted to "political activity" banned under Illinois law and school board policy.

Gordon also noted that the FOIA request raises "difficult questions" about whether documents pertaining to the business of the union, the Glen Ellyn Education Association, are public or private records.

"Please be advised that the district will be taking steps to prevent this type of activity from reoccurring on working time or through the use of district resources, while recognizing the rights of public employees to engage in political activity on their own time and through the use of their own resources," Gordon wrote in the email to Cooper, included in the lawsuit filed June 20.

In his FOIA request May 9, Cooper asked for copies of emails from union members about endorsements, the election and a Political Action Committee for Education, or PACE, among other things. He later clarified that the messages he was seeking came from the district email addresses of union representatives, according to the lawsuit.

The district denied his request May 23, saying some of the emails were exempt under FOIA in part because they contained "recommendations where opinions are expressed." The district argued that other emails were among union members, limited to union matters - not the public business of the school district - and, therefore, were not public records.

The district added that union members are permitted to use school district email to communicate union business under their collective bargaining agreement.

A portion of one email, however, apparently was leaked to a village forum website announcing the creation of a PACE committee that would include elected representatives from each of the district's five schools. The group was charged with seeking out school board candidates, screening them and interviewing them in "hopes that they will end up with a GEEA endorsement."

Four seats are up for grabs next spring. Cooper, who often submits FOIA requests for district financial records, said he hasn't decided whether he will run again and likely won't until Labor Day. He finished last in a seven-way race more than a year ago.

"If they're going to vet candidates, I'd like to see that they vet all candidates and give everyone a fair shot, not just people who may be more inclined to cozy up to them," Cooper said.

Gordon cautioned that, had the district voluntarily released the emails, it likely would have faced legal claims "brought by the Illinois Education Association in the form of a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement" between the board and the union; an unfair labor practice charge filed with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board; or a possible lawsuit, he wrote in another email to Cooper on June 13.

"Any of these proceedings would result in substantial expenditures of time and money to defend," Gordon wrote.

Those legal risks would be "substantially reduced, if not entirely eliminated" if the attorney general's Public Access Counselor's office determined the records should be made public, Gordon said.

But Cooper decided against appealing the district's denial with that office because he was concerned that such a decision could be issued after the election, when a "response really wasn't relevant anymore."

The lawsuit asks a judge to order the district to immediately provide the emails in addition to paying Cooper's legal fees and an unspecified "civil penalty." The complaint alleges that the communications were sent or received using the district's emails, stored on those systems and in the possession of the district, a public body, "rendering them public records."

The district released a statement in response to Cooper's lawsuit that largely echoed Gordon, saying, "independent of the litigation," steps had been taken to enforce board policy and Illinois law barring employees from engaging in political activities "on working time or through the use of district facilities, including its electronic network."

A district spokesman would not elaborate on what those steps were.

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