Glen Ellyn District 41 releases teachers union emails

  • Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 has released emails to Jeff Cooper, a former school board candidate who sued for copies of messages from members of the teachers union about their efforts to "screen, vet and recommend candidates" to the board next spring.

      Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 has released emails to Jeff Cooper, a former school board candidate who sued for copies of messages from members of the teachers union about their efforts to "screen, vet and recommend candidates" to the board next spring. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer, July 2014

 
 
Updated 10/27/2016 10:44 AM

Responding to a court order, Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 has released emails from leaders of its teachers union that show they were working last spring to create a special committee to vet school board candidates about a year before the April 2017 election.

A DuPage County judge ruled that the emails were public records and ordered the district to turn over the messages to Jeff Cooper, a former school board candidate who filed a lawsuit in June accusing the district of violating state public records laws. Cooper sued after the district denied his request for the emails under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The district also released about 30 pages of the emails Wednesday under a FOIA request filed by the Daily Herald.

Karen Dymit and Brian Bonkowski, then co-presidents of the Glen Ellyn Education Association, sent emails to teachers last April trying to get elected representatives from each of the district's five schools to sit on a political action committee for education, or PACE. Dymit has since retired from the district.

Such committees act as the political arm of teachers unions and are not uncommon.

"The purpose of the committee is to ensure the highest quality of education for the children of our community by attracting and supporting school board members," the GEEA co-presidents wrote the afternoon of April 19. "Members of this committee will help shape the future of our district."

A teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School later wrote that the committee "will seek out candidates, screen them and interview them in the hopes that they will end up with a GEEA endorsement."

Four seats are up for grabs on the school board in April 2017.

The emails also indicate the union was concerned that a portion of one such email was leaked to a community forum website. Two teachers from Ben Franklin Elementary School sent an email to union leaders that no one had volunteered for the committee and the issue was "being ripped apart" on the website.

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"It was expressed that the community may not vote for candidates that are 'union strong,'" the teachers wrote.

Bonkowski responded that he would "rather not go into details" via email about teachers' concerns.

"One never knows where an internal GEEA email might appear later in public! Perhaps a phone call?" he asked.

It's unclear whether the committee got off the ground. Christina Kellam, a problem-based learning coach, was appointed the committee's chairwoman but did not return a message for comment Wednesday. The union co-presidents wrote in early May that only one person had been elected to serve with Kellam on the committee.

The district denied Cooper's FOIA request in May, arguing in part that the emails were between union members and limited to union matters -- not the public business of the school district -- and were not public records.

The next day, 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.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In a statement in response to Judge Bonnie Wheaton's ruling, the district said last week 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 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 judge also ordered the district to pay Cooper's attorney $5,600 in fees and $362.84 in other costs by Nov. 22. The district expects to spend "about the same amount" in attorney fees and costs as it's paying Cooper's lawyer.

Cooper said Wednesday the emails "should have never been withheld in the first place."

He has not decided whether he will make another bid at a seat on the board in April.

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