Oak Park and River Forest District 200 officials will have to educate residents about an upcoming bond referendum with fewer hands on deck after the school board voted 5-1 against a contract extension for Winnetka-based communications consultant Marcia Sutter. Board member Jennifer Cassell was absent.
The board made the decision at an Aug. 25 regular meeting, roughly a week after some residents expressed alarm at the language in Sutter’s employment contract, which appeared to violate the district’s ethics policy.
Sutter was going to be hired to help D200 Communications Director Karin Sullivan to help educate and engage community stakeholders on the ballot measure ahead of the Nov. 8 election. That’s when voters will decide whether or not to approve funding for the construction of an estimated $44.5 million, 40-meter pool and parking garage, in addition to numerous enhancements to the existing high school campus, through a referendum bond not to exceed $25 million.
Sutter had been hired to help execute the district’s two previous rounds of community engagement meetings about pool plans held in April and July. Records show she was paid at least $21,000 for her work, which most school board members praised.
An initial copy of her contract extension, released on the district’s website before board members were scheduled to approve it at an Aug. 17 special meeting, however, caused some residents and board members to raise concerns about possible ethical violations.
According to state law, local taxing bodies cannot take a stance for or against referendum questions and can’t appear to side with any outside advocacy groups. In addition, local governments are only supposed to provide factual information to voters and that information is supposed to be made available to anyone who wants it.
An initial copy of Sutter’s contract extension, which was posted on the district’s website, mentions those prohibitions that regulate the district’s referendum activity. But it also notes that community education will include preparing materials “for Vote Yes team meeting (calendar, fact sheet, do’s and don’t’s),” which appears to go beyond what’s prohibited by law and board policy.
The Vote Yes D200 Referendum Committee is a group of residents who support the district’s chosen pool plan and are campaigning to help the ballot measure pass in November.
Bruce Kleinman, an Oak Park resident and member of Pragmatic Pool Solutions, expressed his disapproval during the Aug. 17 meeting.
“I believe this contract is border-line illegal and certainly unethical,” said Kleinman. “That’s outrageous. You’re using public tax monies to provide monies to a private advocacy group to take a stand on the pool? That is absolutely unacceptable.”
While D200 Interim Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt confirmed that the Vote Yes Committee referenced in Sutter’s contract is a private citizens group, she also noted that Sutter’s contract only mentioned that she would be providing factual information to that group and anyone who requests it.
Board member Sara Dixon Spivy, however, questioned why, if the district plans on making the factual information available, the contract mentioned one specific group at all.
“I don’t know why we’d put the name of any citizens group in there when our job is to provide materials to anybody who asks,” she said during the Aug. 17 meeting, before Pruitt recommended that the board table the measure until the next board meeting so that the contract’s language could be cleaned up.
But by the Aug. 25 meeting, after the contract language had been revised and any mention of the Vote Yes Committee scrubbed, most board members felt that, although the mistake seemed relatively minor, the political damage already had been done.
“[The contract] does have the appearance of advocacy,” said board member Steve Gevinson. “It’d be hard not to read it that way in the original version.”
“Politically, for a referendum, it’s almost suicidal to approve her contract,” said Spivy, who, along with other board members, said she didn’t know how the reference to Vote Yes was included in the initial contract.
During phone interviews on Monday, several members of Vote Yes said they didn’t know about their committee’s inclusion in the initial contract language.
“I didn’t hear anything about that until like a week after the (Aug. 17) meeting,” said Vote Yes’ campaign manager, Lynn Kamenitsa. “The high school, as I understand it, cannot do that and any information they provide has to be available to everyone.”