Editorial: District 205 credibility gap remains
By Brandon Reid
A new superintendent, a new communications officer, a new slate of school board members and a new administration building have done nothing to change the culture of deception within the Rockford Public School District 205 administration.
Wednesday, Feb. 1, The Rock River Times (TRRT) attempted to contact District 205 Interim Superintendent Dr. Robert Willis regarding allegations that District 205 Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Cedric Lewis faced driving under the influence (DUI) and felony aggravated unlawful use of a handgun charges in September 2010.
Lewis, now 39, was employed by the district at the time of the offenses. With a salary of $152,000, Lewis is among the highest paid individuals in the superintendent’s cabinet.
Attempts to reach Willis and Lewis beginning at around noon, Feb. 1, were unsuccessful. However, Roberta Edwards, executive coordinator to the superintendent’s office, did return a message left for the superintendent to notify TRRT the district would issue a press release regarding the matter. Following is the press release issued by the district at 1:34 p.m., Feb. 1:
RPS 205 CFO explains misdemeanor charge
A disgruntled former RPS 205 employee contacted school administration today to release a 2010 record from the Will County Circuit Clerk’s office involving RPS 205 CFO Cedric Lewis.
In September, 2010, Lewis was stopped by Illinois State Police in Will County for speeding.
“When the officer asked me if I had any drugs or weapons in my car, I truthfully answered that there was a gun in the car. I have owned a gun since I was 21 and lived in Mississippi where it was legal to own and transport weapons,” Lewis stated. “I wasn’t aware I needed a FOID card in Illinois as I’d only lived in the state for a short time. It was my mistake. I’m now in compliance with state law.”
Lewis pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge and paid a fine of $1,500.
“We know all of the details and there are no job performance issues involved,” Interim Superintendent Dr. Robert Willis stated. “This is a personnel matter so we cannot discuss it further. The administration is fully supportive of Mr. Lewis and his role with the district.”
The district has issued no further statement regarding the matter.
After reviewing the district’s press release and comparing it to Will County court records and an Illinois State Police (ISP) report of the incident, congratulations are apparently in order. Lewis is likely the first person in history to ever be pulled over for speeding while being asleep behind the wheel of a car while parked in a median and blocking a lane of traffic on an interstate.
According to the ISP, Lewis was found asleep behind the wheel of his maroon 2005 Nissan by an ISP trooper shortly before 11:15 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 25. Lewis was parked in the median and blocking southbound traffic on Interstate 55, near Joliet, Ill.
The ISP report said that when the trooper woke Lewis up, Lewis “needed support” to stand. Lewis also had “red, glassy eyes” and his breath smelled of alcohol, according to the report. The trooper also noted Lewis seemed “confused/disoriented.”
Lewis’ odd behavior was soon explained as about an hour later, at an ISP station, Lewis’ blood-alcohol content tested at .207, more than two-and-a-half times the legal limit. A handgun was also found in his car.
Lewis was charged with DUI, driving with a blood-alcohol content greater than .08, felony aggravated unlawful use of a handgun, improper traffic lane usage and driving the wrong way on a divided highway/parking on the median. No charges for speeding were filed.
In November 2010, Lewis — with the assistance of his attorney, Paul R. Vella of Rockford’s Vella & Lund P.C. — reached a plea agreement in Will County to have the felony unlawful use of a handgun charge reduced to a misdemeanor unlawful use of a weapon charge. He was sentenced to 12 months of conditional discharge and fined $1,500, the same amount he had posted in bail.
Lewis pled guilty to the misdemeanor DUI and paid a $300 fine for the charge. He also was granted a year of supervision on the condition he would undergo alcoholism assessment and treatment.
Lewis’ term of supervision for both the weapon charge and the DUI charge ended in November 2011. None of the other traffic charges was pursued by prosecution.
With its inaccurate and falsified press release that stated Lewis was simply pulled over for speeding and charged with a misdemeanor gun charge, it’s clear the current District 205 administration is proudly carrying on the tradition of deceiving the public, snubbing its nose at the law and failing to take responsibility for its actions.
This recent culture of deception dates back to at least November 2009, when TRRT first attempted to expose the level of violence in our public schools.
As written in the Nov. 25-Dec. 1, 2009, TRRT editorial, “The District 205 credibility gap,” in which it was outlined how the school district was misleading and hiding from the public the level of violence in our schools: “The sad part is that while administrators and others in District 205 are scrambling to play politics and spin things in their favor, students are suffering. Did you hear me, District 205? STUDENTS ARE SUFFERING!”
The Nov. 25-Dec. 1, 2009, editorial focused on how violent, premeditated, gang-related food fights and rioting broke out for two consecutive days following a series of false fire alarms at East High School Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 18-19, 2009. During the course of the reporting about those fights, it became apparent District 205 officials were willing to do just about anything — including lie and refuse to return phone calls for comment — to keep the truth from the public.
Lies exposed in that editorial included students reporting the true level of violence being far worse than what was reported by the administration and the administration’s denial that any students were arrested Nov. 18 when, in fact, two students were arrested Nov. 18. (TRRT even had a photo of one student in handcuffs being removed from East by Rockford police Nov. 18.)
Furthermore, when they arrived at East Nov. 18, a TRRT reporter and photographer were told by a security guard that nothing at all had happened at East that day, and maybe the reports TRRT was receiving from parents and students with regard to rioting at East High were actually in reference to Eastern Illinois University. (Yes, that is hysterically ludicrous, so feel free to laugh.)
The lies and deception continued, right up to and including the district’s desperate attempts to keep from the public the contents of a June 19, 2010, unflattering letter to the Rockford Board of Education from former Rockford Auburn High School Principal and current Freeport High School Principal Dr. Patrick Hardy. The district went to incredible lengths to block the release of the letter, sought through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by TRRT.
The district spent an unknown amount of taxpayer money on legal fees in its attempts to block the release of the Hardy letter by filing three exemption requests with the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC), which had already ruled the letter should be released under law. The PAC ruled Sept. 29, 2010, that 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.”
Finally, late in the day Wednesday, Nov. 24 (the day before Thanksgiving, when the district thought no one would be paying attention to the news), the district released the Hardy letter to all area media outlets.
The school district’s refusal to release the Hardy letter also led to TRRT and the Illinois Press Association (IPA) filing a groundbreaking FOIA lawsuit against the district in November 2010. TRRT and the IPA were declared victorious in court Aug. 18, 2011. The lawsuit was the first test of the state’s new FOIA, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2010.
In his ruling, Winnebago County Circuit Judge Eugene G. Doherty, said, “The record gives a clear impression that the District understood that it was wrong on all three claimed exemptions, but was looking for a way to save face rather than simply admitting it was wrong and disclosing the document.” He further states: “the entire course of events here strongly suggest that the District first decided that it would not release a document which it did not want to release, and only then did it begin looking for reasons to support a decision it had already made. The invocation of a new (and equally unfounded) basis for exemption after the first reasons had been proven incorrect is an indication of the District’s intransigence. Only when the requesting party filed suit was the District finally compelled to concede that its position was indefensible.”
In praising the ruling, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said: “This case demonstrates the critical importance of enforceable transparency laws. People have a fundamental right to know how their government conducts itself on their behalf.”
The IPA and TRRT were represented in the FOIA case by Don Craven of Springfield, Ill., legal counsel for the IPA.
Craven said: “This case was a poster child for the imposition of civil penalties. The district was delaying, playing games and exemption shopping. When pushed, they invented a conversation with PAC Cara Smith — a conversation she says never took place — and released the document at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Eve, citing, of course, their long-standing policy of open and transparent government. Perhaps writing this check for civil penalties will encourage the district to have a slightly more sincere policy in support of open and transparent government.”
The deception game must come to an end if District 205 is to ever restore its credibility to a level that will allow it to perform at a high enough level to provide excellent education to all students. Through their continued lying, shirking of responsibility, failing to communicate and snubbing their nose at the law, administrators are simply setting an extremely poor and sad example for our students.
The public should have zero tolerance for any of the key players in this game of deception. In this instance, Willis, Lewis and Earl Dotson, executive director of communication and community empowerment (the one who likely wrote the press release), should be held accountable for their actions, as should anyone who had any part in the more than one-year cover-up of this incident.
The next Rockford Board of Education (BOE) meeting will be at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 14, in room 207 of the Administration Building, 201 S. Madison St., Rockford. Attend the board meeting and demand those involved in this game of deception be held accountable for their actions. Express your thoughts by contacting Willis at (815) 966-3101 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or members of the BOE at the following phone numbers and e-mail addresses:
Harmon Mitchell, board president, Subdistrict F, (815) 399-0710 or email@example.com
Jude Makulec, board vice president, Subdistrict D, (815) 633-6818 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa Jackson, board secretary, Subdistrict A, (815) 375-0175 or email@example.com
Tim Rollins, Subdistrict B, (815) 987-8910 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Kenneth Scrivano, Subdistrict C, (815) 871-6683 or email@example.com
Ronnell Moore, Subdistrict E, (815) 871-6811 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Powers, Subdistrict G, (815) 874-3446 or email@example.com
From the Feb. 8-14, 2012, issue