By Joe McGehee
Rockford Public School District 205 listed the issuance of an alleged “verbal opinion” by Illinois Public Access Counselor (PAC) Cara Smith as the reason they decided to release an unflattering letter written by former Rockford Auburn High School Principal and current Freeport High School Principal Dr. Patrick Hardy.
The district released the Hardy letter, along with the June 17, 2010, letter by District 205 Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield titled “Re: Separation of Employment,” which Hardy’s letter was in response to, at 4:48 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 24 (the day before Thanksgiving).
The Rock River Times (TRRT) had been attempting for more than four months to have the Hardy letter released through various Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The “verbal opinion” stemmed from a conversation held between District 205’s legal counsel, Tom Lester, and Smith Nov. 24. However, after reviewing the PAC’s website, no mention of “verbal opinions” was found, nor do they appear to be binding.
“All I did was reiterate our written position, which they had refused to comply with to that point,” Smith said of her Nov. 24 conversation with Lester. “Our position on this matter has been made crystal clear, as the school district has been advised. We’ve made our position known in writing and have never wavered.”
The PAC previously ruled twice the letter should be released under the FOIA. The district filed two exemption requests with the PAC that claimed the letter was a private matter and a personnel matter, respectively. Both exemption requests were rejected by the PAC Sept. 29. The PAC’s Sept. 29 ruling stated District 205 should “…release the letter to [TRRT Staff Writer] Mr. [Joe] McGehee after providing Dr. Hardy written notice…”. The PAC office went on to state that their ruling should “…serve to close this matter.”
As recently as the Nov. 23 Board of Education meeting (held the evening before the letter was released), District 205 Chief Financial Officer Cedric Lewis stated on behalf of an absent Sheffield: “You may have heard on the radio this week, or read in the same local newspaper, that Dr. Sheffield is trying to keep a letter written by a former administrator to members of this Board from becoming public. What the superintendent is trying to do is find a legally permissible way to release the letter through written consent of the former administrator or written instruction from the Illinois Attorney General. Absent either, the superintendent is complying with the law and protecting the former administrator’s right to privacy. Again, to be clear, the superintendent is fulfilling her obligation to confidentiality under the law AND pursuing appropriate options that may bring transparency.”
Regarding the alleged Nov. 24 “verbal opinion,” District 205 Chief Communications Officer Mark Bonne said: “The verbal opinion was not released until Wednesday morning, that’s what changed our position on releasing the letter. The purpose of the release of the letters was that the district would have no more to say about the matter.”
Bonne responded by e-mail later in the day Nov. 29 after a phone conversation to state: “Per our phone conversation, I can confirm that Tom Lester at Hinshaw & Culbertson is the person who received the verbal opinion from the Attorney General’s concerning the release of Dr. Hardy’s letter. Regarding the timing, the important thing to note is that Dr. Sheffield immediately made the decision to release the letter upon becoming aware Wednesday of the AG opinion.”
Editor’s note: The ill-timed release of Dr. Hardy’s letter the day before Thanksgiving was an obvious and sad ploy to dissipate School District 205’s final admission of a mistake, just as many people release things late Friday night to hit Saturday papers and newscasts, as they are less viewed. The timing of this release displays, once again, Sheffield and the Board of Education’s disregard of the public’s right to know. For the K-12 educational system, the superintendent and Board of Education have set a poor example of what an educational institution should represent.
This example of a crumbling stone-wall effort, combined with the assault on the honors program, as well as the continual marginalization of personnel, gives more fuel to the fire of the rising tide calling for Dr. Sheffield’s resignation, which is being displayed in social media such as Facebook.—Frank Schier
From the Dec. 8-14, 2010 issue
Editor’s note: Following are links to The Rock River Times’ (TRRT) complete coverage of its attempts to obtain the Hardy letter, including a copy of the complaint filed by TRRT and the Illinois Press Assocation against District 205 for its failure to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
Following are links to TRRT‘s coverage of its attempts to obtain the letter:
• District 205 battles to keep unflattering letter private, Oct. 6-12, 2010, issue of TRRT
• District 205 challenges Public Access Council’s ruling, continues battle to keep unflattering letter from public, Oct. 13-19, 2010, issue of TRRT
• District 205 yet to release unflattering letter, Oct. 20-26, 2010, issue of TTRT
• Board of Education says little about battle over unflattering letter, Nov. 3-9, 2010, issue of TRRT
• Editorial: Public must take stand in battle for unflattering letter, Nov. 3-9, 2010, issue of TRRT
• IPA, TRRT file suit against District 205, LaVonne Sheffield, posted Nov. 3 under Happening Now
• Preliminary hearing in IPA, TRRT suit against District 205 Feb. 2, Nov. 10-16, 2010, issue of TRRT
• Taxpayers demand accountability from school district, Nov. 10-16, 2010, issue of TRRT
• Sheffield responds to ‘Rumor Tuesday’ at Nov. 9 Board of Education meeting, posted Nov. 10 under Happening Now
• A note about the Hardy letter, posted Nov. 22 under Happening Now
• Editorial: The responsibility of credible reporting and the public trust, Nov. 24-30, 2010, issue of TRRT
• District 205 releases Hardy, Sheffield letters, posted Nov. 24 under Happening Now
• District 205 releases Hardy, Sheffield letters—part one, Dec. 1-7, 2010, issue of TRRT
• District 205 releases Hardy, Sheffield letters—part two, Dec. 8-14, 2010, issue of TRRT
• ‘Verbal opinion’ cited as reason for releasing Hardy letter, Dec. 8-14, 2010, issue of TRRT