Judge: Glen Ellyn Dist. 41 must release teachers union emails
A DuPage County judge has ordered Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 to turn over emails to a former school board candidate who filed a lawsuit accusing the district of violating state public records laws.
Jeff Cooper sued in June after the district denied his request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act for emails from members of the teachers union. He sought messages about their efforts to "screen, vet and recommend candidates" for election to the board in April 2017, the lawsuit states.
The complaint claims the messages 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."
Judge Bonnie Wheaton agreed, ruling in favor of Cooper and ordering the district to release the emails no later than Oct. 25. The district also must pay Cooper's attorney $5,600 in fees and $362.84 in other costs by Nov. 22.
The district does not plan to appeal.
As of Thursday afternoon, Cooper said he had not yet received copies of the emails.
Cooper said he was "very disappointed in the whole thing" and criticized the district for withholding the emails "at the cost of transparency."
"This was all totally, absolutely avoidable," Cooper said.
In his FOIA request on May 9, Cooper asked for copies of emails from union members about endorsements, the election and a Political Action Committee for Education, or PACE.
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 also argued that other emails were among union members and limited to union matters -- not the public business of the school district -- and were not public records.
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.
A portion of one email 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."
In a statement in response to the judge's ruling, the district said that "independent of the litigation," it is enforcing the law prohibiting employees from engaging in political activities on working time or through the use of district facilities, including its electronic network.
The district expects to spend "about the same amount" in attorney fees and costs as it's paying Cooper.
"The lawsuit presented difficult legal questions pitting Mr. Cooper's interests under FOIA against potential legal disputes with GEEA/IEA under the collective bargaining agreement between the district and GEEA, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act and perhaps other laws," the statement read.
The district also "had hoped" Cooper would have appealed the FOIA denial with the attorney general's Public Access Counselor's office.
"This would have been substantially less costly, but more time-consuming," the district's statement read.
But Cooper said he decided against such an appeal because he was concerned the office would issue a nonbinding decision about whether the records should be made public long after the election in April 2017, when fours seats are up for grabs on the school board.
"It would have rendered everything pointless," said Cooper, who lives in an unincorporated area near Glen Ellyn.
He said he hasn't decided whether he will run again and likely won't until December. Cooper finished last in a seven-way race in 2015.
Cooper said he "wasn't looking for a penny" from the district and voiced concerns that the union was quietly trying to "usurp" the election.