Dist. 211 agreements: Ensuring professionalism or stifling debate?
After nearly a year of preparation, the Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 board of education this month unanimously approved a list of agreements defining their responsibilities as board members and expected behavior toward each other.
The agreements, supporters say, are intended to help the board operate more professionally. But even after the unanimous vote, debate continues about whether such agreements stifle dissent and silence minority viewpoints on the board when the community elected seven different people to serve them.
Board member Lauanna Recker emphasized that high on the list of the agreements is an expectation that board members respect free expression of differing opinions.
However, the list also states that board members will abide by majority decisions and that only the board president should speak publicly on behalf of the board, while the superintendent speaks for district administration.
Pete Dombrowski, who was elected to the school board in April 2015 and has, at times, since disagreed with the board majority, said the agreements' call for "mutual trust" wasn't one of his priorities when he ran for the school board nor one of the oaths he took when sworn into office.
"My whole position is that we have to call into question our finances," said Dombrowski "From day one, I said I'm not here to trust you or get you to trust me, but I will treat you all with respect."
Board President Mucia Burke said she began looking into the agreements, with the guidance of the Illinois Association of School Boards, when seeking ways to effectively serve after winning election in 2011. It wasn't until after the 2015 election, however, that the idea gained momentum.
"(Board members are) virtually strangers, but we're supposed to come together one to three times a month to decide the best direction for the district," Burke said. "I didn't want to waste the board's time. I think for me that's all it was. There was no hidden agenda. It was about how to be better at our jobs."
A vote on the agreements was sidetracked for a few months this year because of questions concerning Dombrowski.
In January, Dombrowski attended a meeting of the group District 211 Parents for Privacy, which recently filed a lawsuit against the district over a transgender student's locker room and bathroom access. He didn't volunteer that information to his fellow board members when indirectly asked about it.
However, when asked directly, Dombrowski readily admits having been at the meeting and says he was as surprised as any other board member when Parents for Privacy sued District 211.
Despite his reservations. Dombrowski said he ultimately voted in favor of the agreements, noting that the board has little ability to punish members deemed to have violated the policies.
"They said it themselves, censure is the worst you can do," he said. "You give someone the cold shoulder and move on."
Palatine Township Elementary District 15 Board President Peggy Babcock said her board has used similar agreements successfully for many years, tweaking them from time to time, such as when new members are elected.
Their objective is to emphasize respect, she said. Rather than censor different viewpoints, the agreements are meant to make sure everyone is comfortable stating their position, she added.
Barbara Toney, field services director for the Illinois Association of School Boards' Lake, DuPage and North Cook divisions, worked with districts 15 and 211 in drafting their agreements. Clearing up misconceptions about them is part of the process, she said.
"We're very, very careful to tell board members this is in no way muzzling," Toney said.
"One of our big tenets that is misunderstood is to speak with one voice. Board members are obligated to speak their opinion and vote their opinion, but support the decision once it's made. The agreements aren't content-specific; they're about how we work together."
Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole said his agency doesn't advocate similar agreements for city and village boards.