Emails show how District 59 board tried to keep referendum off ballot
Leaders on the Elk Grove Township District 59 school board led the effort to keep voters from deciding whether the district should borrow up to $20 million, according to emails obtained by the Daily Herald.
The emails also show school board members leaned on top local Democrats for advice and resources in an attempt to block the grass-roots effort to put the question of issuing bonds on the March ballot.
While the emails give voters a clearer picture of the push against the backdoor referendum effort brought by residents, it's not illegal for school board members to campaign for or against election issues in their individual capacity.
Board President Barbara Somogyi said she and other board members wanted to ensure election laws were followed.
"I was trying to uphold the integrity of the voting process to make sure that the people on the petition were in fact registered voters," Somogyi said. "The county proved it, and that was fine."
Though state law allows school board members to put their names on petition objections in their status as a resident, the emails indicate board members sought someone else to put their name on the paperwork.
"We are working on identifying a resident to challenge," board Vice President Janice Krinsky wrote in an email to Somogyi a day before residents submitted their petitions. "(My husband) said he will if we can't find someone else."
The next day, residents submitted about 4,300 signatures, nearly 1,000 more than the required 10 percent of voters. One week later, Esther Carrera, secretary of the Elk Grove Township Democrats, filed objections to the petitions.
A day before, Krinsky sent an electronic file of objections in an email to private accounts for Somogyi, board Secretary Sunil Bhave and board members Sharon Roberts and Karen Osmanski, as well as Elk Grove Township Democrat Committeeman Ted Mason and Palatine Township Democratic Committeeman Matt Flamm.
"Great job everyone!" Krinsky wrote. "Now we keep our fingers crossed!"
The emails surfaced in an open records request because Somogyi had forwarded the document to her school district account, which is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
"The fact their emails are tracing it back to them is not pretty," said Ben Silver, an attorney for the Citizens Advocacy Center in Elmhurst. "Our position would be a pro-democratic solution of it going to the ballot. We're all for direct democracy."
The district proposed issuing bonds to help stabilize the budget and help pay for renovations at two schools and a new administration center. Though the district has a large reserve fund, the school board has been spending down its savings with new initiatives to bolster early education programs.
Bill Christian, the Elk Grove Village resident who submitted the petitions, said the emails are concerning because it appears school board members were not nonpartisan, as required by state law.
"There's a lot of shenanigans going on," he said.
Krinsky said Mason and Flamm were not acting as Democrats but rather as resources for legal advice, and the group acted ethically throughout the process.
"I operate always with the best interests of the children in mind," she said. "I really feel upset by the constant smears of who I am and what I stand for because I operate with high ethics for the children."
The use of school district email accounts also brings into question whether board members unlawfully used public resources to gain support or opposition for the bond issue. Under state law, public funds and resources cannot be used for campaign purposes.
School board member Tim Burns, who opposed issuing bonds, also used his school district email to communicate with residents about submitting petitions calling for the backdoor referendum.
"The public was not happy with this decision to issue bonds so I informed them of their right to remedy under Illinois law," he said.
"The public chose to exercise their rights, so I believe my conduct is within election law."
Legal experts differ on the issue. The school district's attorneys said case law has defined the use of email as a "de minimis," or insignificant, use of public resources.
Ken Menzel, general counsel for the state board of elections, said the courts haven't necessarily determined whether using public email counts is a use of funds.
"It may not be illegal, but it may well be perceived as campaigning against the question and bring political backlash as opposed to legal backlash," Menzel said.