Chances of the public seeing detailed comments of staff and parents from a District 97 spring survey, even in an abbreviated form with the names removed, remain remote.
Oak Park’s elementary board of education hosted a special public meeting Sept. 15 to discuss, without comments provided by administration, an executive summary of the survey. But with the district’s lawyers present, about an hour of the meeting was spent discussing whether the public, or even individual board members, could have access to parts of the survey.
Mike Loizzi, of Hodges Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn, the district’s law firm, said that individual board members were entitled to see the detailed comments of staff members and parents. He explained that school board members are privy to certain information needed to help them fulfill their duties as elected officials. But he cautioned against a board member, in this instance, publicizing those comments, warning that that could affect relations among staff, the board and administration.
The survey, conducted in fall 2008 and with results released in May, included comments provided by parents and staff concerning their views of administration, the board and the schools. The board and administration, based on the responses to specific survey questions, rated low among parents and staff. Board members Rance Clouser and Jennifer Reddy have urged the district to release those comments to the board, but fellow members have opposed that move. Administration has also advised against releasing them, citing that parents and staff were told that their comments would remain confidential.
Citing an exemption under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Loizzi said a school district could be exempt from releasing information classified as “pre-decisional data,” that is, information related to memos or other such internal documents where staff opinions are expressed. Loizzi, though, warned that that exemption could be challenged in court with respect to something like a climate survey.
Clouser maintained he still wanted to see the comments, even without names, and other detailed data, insisting that viewing them will better inform him as a board member. But Reddy, citing the opinion of legal counsel, reversed her earlier decision, saying that she will now accept an executive summary but with more details.
Board President Peter Traczyk noted that redactions – removal of the names of parents, students or of defamatory statements – should be done by legal counsel and not the board. He and other members noted that the district would incur a cost for that process but did not give a specific amount.
Though board members agreed that they’re entitled to see those comments, some warned against doing so. Peter Barber noted that he took the survey as a parent, with the understanding that his added comments would be kept private.
“As a parent, I did not intend for those comments to be made public,” he said. “I assumed that administration would look at them. And whether it’s the public, or if not, a board member, I would be frustrated if that information would get out, even if my name and my child’s name were removed. I would feel a sense of violation.”
Board member Bob Spatz, who has supported releasing an executive summary, warned that even requesting for the comments would result in relationship issues with staff. Jim Gates steadfastly supported an executive summary, saying he’s not interested in seeing comments, redacted or not. Harton and Traczyk also backed releasing the summary.
Traczyk added that the survey responses released publicly in May has informed the board and its actions, namely specific board and district goals approved for this current school year.