The Sycamore School District 427 board held a special meeting at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, during which it approved a new teachers contract. Members should give the public proper notice and hold another one.
Ordinarily, a Daily Chronicle reporter would have attended and written about such a meeting. Many of our readers live in Sycamore, and we likely would have written about it in advance so that citizens would know what was going on. Teachers contracts are a significant factor in the financial health of a school district, and with this district having a $2.6 million budget deficit last school year, it’s information that taxpayers deserve to know.
But this week’s special meeting went unreported because the school district never notified the Daily Chronicle that it planned to hold it, in an apparent violation of Illinois’ Open Meetings Act. It posted notices elsewhere – outside its meeting place, on its website – places where if you happened to be looking for the information on a whim, you would have found it. But the single most visible source of the information, the local newspaper, was left out of the loop.
That’s not what the law says is supposed to happen.
At the start of each year, the Daily Chronicle sends formal, written requests for notice of public meetings to all the public bodies in DeKalb County, including one sent to District 427. The Open Meetings Act says that all news media that send such requests are entitled to the same notice of special meetings as the board members themselves.
The reason this is part of the law isn’t because politicians have any great love for reporters. It’s because they understand that local news outlets are the most effective way for the public to find out about the goings-on in local government. Learning about public meetings, attending them and asking questions are a key way we hold our local elected officials accountable for their actions.
All year, District 427 has emailed meeting agendas to the Chronicle. Until this week, when instead of a meeting agenda, the newspaper received a news release from the school district informing us what happened at the meeting we missed. The release did not include any details of the school board vote, nor did it mention that two school board members abstained from voting on it because their spouses are teachers in the district. When we requested a copy of the contract, we were told it wasn’t available yet. How does one vote on a contract that isn’t available? That’s difficult to say. Generally, once a school board votes on an item, it becomes a public document subject to public inspection.
District Superintendent Kathy Countryman says neglecting to notify the Daily Chronicle was a simple oversight. Regardless how it happened, the state’s Open Meetings Act law is clear that the newspaper should have been notified. The school board should address this problem by giving proper notice, holding another meeting and revoting on the contract.