Note review means progress, but it's unlikely we'll learn much

 
 
Published11/16/2007 12:16 AM

The disclosure of the CIA's "Family Jewels," this is not.

Still, the impending release of nearly 40 years' worth of closed-session meeting minutes from Elgin Area School District U-46 is groundbreaking -- no matter what the minutes contain.

 

After some prodding, U-46 board members earlier this year began sifting through closed-meeting minutes dating back to 1970, with an eye toward releasing some portion of them.

The very act of review signals a significant step forward for U-46, which has made public support and trust a pillar of its district-wide improvement plan.

On Tuesday, school board President Ken Kaczynski said the review was a painstaking process -- presumably because nobody had done it before -- and that some portion of the minutes would be released later this year or early next.

By law, board members must review closed-session meeting minutes every six months, and then vote on whether to make some or all of those minutes public.

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For years, U-46 board members have dutifully voted every six months to keep all closed-meeting minutes under wraps.

Board members past and present have acknowledged the votes were perfunctory, and rarely, if ever, involved a thorough examination of the pros and cons of disclosure.

U-46 attorney Pat Broncato said it's been at least a decade since closed-meeting minutes were released.

On Tuesday, the board voted again not to release any closed-meeting minutes.

No board member or district official I've spoken to can recall whether closed-session meeting minutes ever have been released.

In response to my inquiry, Illinois public access counselor Terry Mutchler wrote, "It would be notable, but not impossible," that decades-old records would still require confidentiality.

Ultimately, it's up for school boards to decide if the need for confidentiality outweighs the public's right to know.

So what goes on at these closed-session board meetings that the public might like to know?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The real business of the district occurs in closed session, one retired school-board member told me.

That business includes collective bargaining discussions, imminent litigation and personnel matters.

The following qualify for closed-session treatment: board debate about outgoing Superintendent Connie Neale's controversial-is-an-understatement contract and retirement deal; the unresolved teachers' contract; and the million-dollar racial bias lawsuit -- in short, the stuff people care about.

Nobody should be under any illusions.

Nothing involving the lawsuit, which the district has at times broadly defined as any issue involving minority students, will be released.

Collective bargaining is ongoing, so board members cannot release anything involving current teacher contract negotiations, and likely won't release minutes from prior negotiations.

Nor, barring an unforeseen spasm of openness, will the board release minutes from any of the closed-session debates over Neale's contract.

This month, I asked Kaczynski to explain what, precisely, board members were thinking when they approved a contract amendment declaring Neale's right to run the state's second-largest school system from out of state.

Kaczynski said he couldn't recall the rationale behind that decision, but he said the discussion occurred in closed session anyway, so he couldn't discuss it.

I'm not anticipating getting an answer to my question when the meeting minutes are finally released this year.

Those released minutes likely will be limited to records of long-ago meetings involving long-resolved issues.

Still, minutes involving old issues could be fascinating.

Can't you imagine, a decade in the future, people still being fascinated by the board's closed-door discussions about Neale's contract?

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