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District 205 battles to keep unflattering letter private
By Joe McGehee
The Rock River Times has attempted through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain a copy of an unflattering letter written by former Rockford Auburn High School Principal and current Freeport High School Principal Dr. Patrick Hardy. However, Rockford Public School District 205’s legal department has refused to make the letter public as of press time.
The letter was written by Hardy in response to District 205 Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield’s letter titled “Separation of Employment,” dated June 17, 2010. However, after two FOIA requests and the district’s filing of a Pre-Approval of Use of Exemption 7(1)(c) or 7(1)(f), which was denied by the Attorney General’s Public Access Council (PAC), the letter remains unread by Rockford taxpayers.
In the PAC’s denial for use of the exemption, the council stated, “The District has failed to meet its burden of establishing that the information in the Letter is highly personal or objectionable to a reasonable person and that the subject’s right to privacy outweighs any legitimate interest in obtaining the information.”
Cara Smith, Illinois public access counselor for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D), said: “The school district’s reasoning failed the balancing test we apply to every case. They had the burden of showing that the public’s right to know is outweighed by the privacy issues at stake, and they failed to do so.”
Monday, Sept. 20, District 205 sent another notice of denial of the request stating the PAC’s ruling was “erroneous,” and that the letter was deemed a personnel matter as “Dr. Hardy specifically asked in his June 19, 2010 letter to have the letter placed in his personnel file so as to rebut the letter of reprimand.”
The Rock River Times has worked closely with the Illinois Press Association (IPA) throughout the process of attempting to obtain the letter. Founded in 1865, the IPA is the largest state newspaper association in the country, representing more than 480 daily and weekly newspapers in Illinois in matters ranging from advertising to accessing public information.
Josh Sharp, director of government relations for the IPA, said, “It appears that the school district is doing everything it can, even asserting exemptions that don’t exist under the law, to keep this information from the public.”
Rockford Board of Education President David Kelley confirmed receiving the letter, which was also sent to board members, while District 205 Chief Communications Officer Mark Bonne declined to comment on the matter because “the matter was under review with our attorney.”
Other members of the Board of Education to confirm receiving the letter included Harmon Mitchell, Alice Saudargas and Jeanne Westholder. Jude Makulec declined to comment, and Bob Evans could not be reached.
The Rock River Times filed a Request for Review with the PAC Sept. 21.
View the FOIA requests, District 205’s requests for exemptions and the PAC’s letter of denial of District 205’s exemptions at the bottom of the page.
The Illinois Freedom of Information Act, 5 ILCS 140/1, states: “Pursuant to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of government, it is declared to be the public policy of the State of Illinois that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees consistent with the terms of this Act. Such access is necessary to enable the people to fulfill their duties of discussing public issues fully and freely, making informed political judgments and monitoring government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest.”
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From the Oct. 6-12, 2010 issue