District 95 – Transcript of Comments, Letter Sent to Board
Last week I wrote a post criticizing comments made at the April 28 District 95 school board meeting and I want to follow up with a transcript of those comments. The transcript is within the text of a letter to the District 95 school board from attorney Richard Fedder, who is assisting newly elected board member Amy Erickson. The entire text of the letter is below the asterisks.
You can also click here to view the letter as a pdf.
Last week’s post attracted several comments and I suspect this post will attract a few as well. So far, there have been no problems, but I know people can get passionate about schools, so I want to remind everyone of the comment policy. I will delete comments that are hateful or libelous. Hateful means racist, sexist, heterosexist/homophobic, xenophobic, etc. Libel is a little more nebulous, but you can click here for some guidance.
I believe in free speech and I use a light touch with comments. The best idea is to follow the example I’ve set in the posts. I make it a point to assume that people are smart and well meaning. I sometimes criticize ideas or behavior but I do not question or criticize character. I encourage others to do the same in their comments. As I said above, so far all the comments have been fine.
I’ll add one more thing. If the District 95 school board or any member of it wants to offer a response to Fedder’s letter, send it to me and I’ll post it. Of course, you can also leave your response in the comments.
Here is the full text of the letter:
144 Pineview Road
Carbondale, Illinois 62901
Telephone: [Removed – ed.]
e-mail: [Removed – ed.]
July 5, 2011
To: Board of Education
Carbondale School District 95
From: Richard Fedder
Re: Amy Erickson, Open Meetings, Board Minutes
I am an attorney who has been retained to assist Amy Erickson in the matters listed above. I am also the parent of two girls who graduated from Carbondale schools. One of them even had Superintendent Meredith for a teacher. I have an abiding respect for the job done by the Carbondale school system. But in a dynamic and successful school system, there must always be room for new ideas and constructive criticism.
As you know, Ms. Erickson is a grass-roots community organizer and a strong advocate for parents and children in the schools. She has some ideas about how to improve Carbondale schools. That is why she ran for the Board. She also has a strong following in the community. Some of her supporters regularly attend Board meetings.
Frankly, I do not know what Ms. Erickson’s ideas are. You may strongly disagree with them. But that is irrelevant. It is readily apparent that a large number of concerned parents in the Carbondale School District do agree with her ideas. That is why they elected her. That is also why they turn out at School Board Meetings. The Board is supposed to represent these community members. Therefore the Board has a duty to listen to them with an open mind.
School Board officials always say that they wish they had more parent involvement. Ms. Erickson brings that parent involvement to the table.
But, judging from the disparaging comments by Ms. Rendleman discussed below, this community involvement appears to make some Board members angry. I wish I could understand why. You say you believe in democracy, but you do not seem to like it when democracy actually works.
I am sure you are all saying to yourselves, even now, that you welcome community input, and that you did not do anything at Ms. Erickson’s first meeting to embarrass, undermine or silence her. I beg to differ. The words of Ms. Rendleman speak for themselves.
On the very first day, that Ms. Erickson began her term of service on the Board, no one even bothered to welcome her to the Board, or otherwise extend a hand in friendship or collegiality. Instead, Ms. Rendleman greeted Ms. Erickson by reading her a previously prepared censure, blaming Ms. Erickson for her prior community activism and telling her that such activism has no place on the School Board.
Ms. Rendleman called this a personal matter, supposedly to clear the air between her and Ms. Erickson. However, if it truly were just a personal matter, not representing the Board’s opinion, why did she not clear the air with Ms. Erickson in private? Instead she read her censure publicly, in front of parents, teachers, and community members. This was not some off-the-cuff remarks, wherein Ms. Rendleman got carried away by the moment. This was a carefully prepared speech. The content of the speech was little different than playground bullying. Ms. Erickson had not yet taken her first vote in her position on the Board, or even made one comment to provoke Ms. Rendleman’s “concerns”. Yet, already, Ms. Rendleman was trying to intimidate and ostracize Ms. Erickson. Her speech was designed to communicate to parents and teacher alike that Ms. Erickson was not a team member, that she was obstructionist, the kind of person who makes hundreds of petty complaints just to sabotage the Board, and that therefore she ought not to be taken seriously.
All of this was covered up by the Board’s minutes from the meeting.
The minutes for section 6.22 of this April 28th meeting merely state:
President Pfister thanked Susie Toliver for her 12 years of service to the District and welcomed newly elected Board member, Amy Erickson.
But President Pfister did not, in fact, welcome Ms. Erickson, as I think all of you realize. If you do not realize this, I suggest you go listen to the tape recording of the meeting yourselves.
We have heard the tape of the meeting and transcribed it. Here is what Mr. Pfister actually said, as transcribed from the tape:
“Item 6.22. We have a retiring board person of 12 years. This is probably the member who deals more directly with our students and parents in her real job with the city of Carbondale than any other member of he Board. She’s the kind of person who doesn’t always say a lot. When she talks people listen. She provides good insight and listens to all sides and comes up with clear concise decisions. [unclear statement here about making someone a better person and board member]. She’s been a board member for 12 years and Board Secretary 7 years. We’d like to thank you for your support and leadership on the District 95 Board, April 28, 2011. 2009-20011 Board of Education is retired. We will be starting a reception in about 15 minutes.”
The statement in the minutes that Mr. Pfister welcomed Ms. Erickson is a pure fabrication.
The minutes are even more seriously inaccurate, however, by their omissions. In the first place, Ms. Rendleman greeted Ms. Erickson by essentially attacking her character and integrity. No mention of this was made in the minutes. Ms. Erickson answered cogently and relevantly. No mention of that answer was made either. In the second place, the Board set aside time for community comments at the meeting (as it routinely does). Some serious community comments were made that day, but none of them were recorded in the minutes.
Furthermore, when Ms. Erickson objected to the minutes at the next meeting, for the reasons above, the Board told her unanimously that they do not put community comments in the minutes. This, of course, is demonstrably not true. One need only look at old minutes to see that community comments are normally included in the minutes. In addition, Ms. Erickson was told that the Board cannot amend minutes. That position is ridiculous. Why would the Board even bother to read the minutes back at the next meeting for approval, if the Board is not allowed to correct errors?
Ms. Rendleman’s censure speech was delivered during the New Business section of the meeting. As you presumably recall, she delivered it in a scolding tone of voice. It was recorded and we have transcribed it as follows:
“Amy, I’d like to address you directly as you are starting your new role as a board member. This statement I personally wrote to clear the air and for my own comfort. It is not in any way a statement of District 95 or any other board member. The voters of District 95 have elected you for their board member, a seat which you worked hard for and effectively. You have been active as a parent volunteer, community member, attending educational seminars and administrative meetings and have been very active. Your role will change. The skills needed as being a member of a collective governing body are very different than those you’ve used. Although our function is often misunderstood by the public, the best school boards set high standards for their students and staff and then get out of the way. Administrative micromanagement has proven, time after time, to weaken school systems. Frankly I’m wary of you because of your past methods. You or your associates have filed at least three grievances with the attorney general’s office and made up to 5 FOIA requests. [The community members begin to protest from the audience)]. You can move up if you’d like to…. You have made complaints about District 95 to the City of Carbondale, Regional Office of Education, Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois State Board of Education and even the Department of Education at the Federal level. You’ve written critical editorials, guest columns, and letters to the local media, not to mention the probably hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and text messages demanding the attention of the Board, particularly the Superintendent and our administators and staff. Roughly 5 years of a campaign against our organization you now are a part of, but the people have spoken and I really hope you work with everyone openly. Open meetings, private sessions and committees are the only place we do our work and I hope after tonight your contributions to District 95 will be rewarding, productive and positive for all.”
Ms. Rendleman’s claim that her speech was merely a personal statement is disingenuous. She made this statement in public during the New Business section. She clearly intended to tell Ms. Erickson publicly that she was no longer to write letters to the Board, staff, or Superintendent of schools, or write guest editorials in the newspaper criticizing the Board. She was also not to micro-manage, whatever Ms. Rendleman meant by that (Is it “micro-managing”, for example, to insist that the School Board follow Illinois law as set forth in the Open Meetings Act?). She also accused Ms. Erickson of campaigning against the School Board for five years.
Why would the Board waste some five minutes of the public’s time during the New Business section of its Board meeting, with mere personal statements by one Board member against another? Would the Board grant Ms. Erickson five minutes at every Board meeting to make her own “personal” statements, just to “clear the air”?
If Ms. Rendleman had genuine problems with what she thought was Ms. Erickson’s confrontational or obstructionist style, the right way to handle it would not have been a hostile speech in front of an audience of parents. It would have required a dialogue between Ms. Rendleman and Ms. Erickson – to discuss the problems as Ms. Erickson perceived them, and the way to handle them on the Board as Ms. Rendleman perceived that to be.
Ms. Rendleman clearly did not just speak to clear the air for her own comfort. She carefully prepared this statement in advance for the purpose of discrediting Ms. Erickson in front of the gathered audience of parents and teachers. She wanted to say that Ms. Erickson is not a team player, that she is hostile to Carbondale Schools, and that her attacks against the School System are counterproductive.
Furthermore, Ms. Rendleman’s method smacks of old-fashioned McCarthyism. She noticeably avoids saying that Ms. Erickson did any of those specific things which Ms. Rendleman found to be hostile or counter-productive. Rather, Ms. Rendleman blamed Ms. Erickson’s “associates”, whoever they might be. Does Ms. Rendleman mean to say that anyone in the community who questions the wisdom of the Board is one of Ms. Erickson’s associates? Is Ms Erickson supposed to be held accountable for every letter, e-mail, or text message sent to the Board or the Superintendent in the past 5 years?
For the record, Ms. Erickson never wrote the Board, Staff, or Superintendent, nor did she text them hundreds of times.
I must add that, while I cannot prove it, I do not believe that Ms. Rendleman prepared this written speech on her own, without showing it to any other Board members, or at least the Board president, before the meeting. I believe that the Board president, as well as Ms. Rendleman, had made the decision to take a tough line against Ms. Erickson, before she even started on the School Board. That is why he did not welcome her. He orchestrated this scene to be a slap in the face for Ms. Erickson.
I do not know how many other Board members knew about it. You can search your own consciences. But certainly, none of you spoke up as you should have. Why did no one say: “Amy, Ms. Rendleman does not speak for me. I personally want to welcome you to the School Board.” That’s all it would have taken to mitigate the damage. By not doing so, the entire Board tacitly approved Mr. Pfister’s intentional insult to Ms. Erickson, and Ms. Rendleman’s accompanying censure speech.
In addition, when Ms. Erickson objected at the next meeting that the minutes were not correct, the Board unanimously voted that the minutes were correct, even though they obviously were not. In effect, the Board permitted the minutes to be doctored in order to hide the fact that Ms. Erickson was bullied and intimidated at her first meeting.
Furthermore, the attempt to “silence” Ms. Erickson appears to have been literal, as well as figurative. Every time Ms. Erickson spoke, at her second Board meeting in May, , no one from the public could hear her. Wondering why, Ms. Erickson went over to the sound system and discovered that the microphones for all the other Board members were turned up, but hers was turned down. Perhaps this was just a coincidence, but if so, it was an oddly suspicious one.
Carbondale is a good-spirited, congenial community. I have no doubt that each of you on the Board is well-meaning. Therefore, I ask you to put yourself in Ms. Erickson’s place for a moment. Imagine if you were treated this way, from your first day on the job as Board Member. You would demand much better. Can you not bring yourselves to treat Ms. Erickson in the way you would want to be treated, with civility and respect?
The final irony in Ms. Rendleman’s “welcoming” speech to Ms. Erickson is that, again pandering to the public, Ms. Rendleman told Ms. Erickson that she will have to learn that the School Board has open meetings and does things openly. The implication to the public was that Ms. Erickson is the one who was doing things secretly, in back rooms, to undermine the Board.
What did Ms. Erickson actually do secretly or in back rooms? It is my understanding that she made two complaints to the Attorney General’s office. Of course, there was nothing secretive about these complaints. To the contrary, she filed them because the School Board, or its sub-committees, were not conducting their meetings openly, as the law requires.
I personally wrote Ms. Erickson’s argument to the Attorney General the second time. There were several violations at issue. But there was nothing secretive about the Complaint. In fact, the School Board’s attorney was given every opportunity to answer the complaint, and he did so. The Attorney General’s Office then independently reviewed both sides of the argument and found that the School Board was in violation of the Open Meetings Act, essentially with respect to every point we made.
Now, Ms. Rendleman wants to blame Ms. Erickson because she had the audacity to ask the School Board to follow the law. That is like blaming the victim. The sub-committee excluded input from community members, such as Ms. Erickson. As a result, she complained, and the Attorney General subsequently agreed with her. It is the School Board which violated the law. Granted, these violations were probably not intentional, and the Board may still believe that it did not really do anything wrong. But, at least the Board has to admit that Ms. Erickson’s complaints and concerns were not frivolous or obstructionist, as Ms. Rendleman implied.
Besides, when Ms. Erickson first complained that the Board was violating the law, she did not just run to the Attorney General. She asked the Board first, and/or its subcommittee, to correct the problem, just as any team player would. How does that make Ms. Erickson a troublemaker, or a person deserving of censure, merely because she sought to hold the Board to the standard of community participation required by Illinois law?
I should hope that everyone on the School Board wants to follow Illinois law. They should welcome Ms. Erickson’s diligence and insight on these matters.
I am somewhat of an expert on the Open Meetings Act. I recently filed a law suit and won a case against the Peoria City Council for violating the Open Meetings Act. As a result, I probably understand the Act better than the Board’s attorney. I believe with near certainty that the School Board was, and still is, in violation of the Act.
However, neither I nor Ms. Erickson wish to escalate this argument by filing a lawsuit. Ms. Erickson truly wants to clear the air, and hold the kind of full and honest discussion which Ms. Rendleman never offered. Ms. Erickson is quite serious about taking the approach of peace, not war. All she wants is to move forward in a productive manner.
In saying that, Ms. Erickson also wishes to assure the Board that she is not looking to embarrass anyone. If the Board is willing to address the underlying concerns in a positive manner, Ms. Erickson will have no reason for further recriminations over these matters.
Here are the issues she wants the Board to address in a prompt and substantive way:
1. Establish a policy, in line with the Attorney General’s aforementioned opinion, directing the Board and all of its committees about the appropriate methods for complying with the Open Meetings Act
2. Establish a clear policy for keeping minutes, and for approving them, which makes it clear that minutes are required to be accurate and reasonably complete, that they are to include comments and questions from the audience (or at least summaries thereof), that Board members cannot go “off the record” and thereby off the minutes when making comments in the middle of a public meeting (such as to make personal comments about another Board member)
3. Acknowledge in writing (for Ms. Erickson’s records) that she is not forbidden as a Board Member from exercising her free speech rights, such as writing letters or otherwise talking to local media, talking to teachers and administrators on her own, or inspecting the schools in her official capacity as Board member.
4. That you acknowledge a duty to include her in Board decisions (including reporting her votes in the official minutes) and on Board committees in the same way as you would any other Board member.
In addition Ms. Erickson would like the minutes of her first meeting to be amended to more accurately reflect what actually happened. She suggests the following:
Strike from the minutes…. “and welcomed newly elected Board member, Amy hErickson.”
Add the oath of office [also found in the April 23, 2009 minutes after the 09 election]
Section 7 New Business
Add the full text of Ms. Rendleman’s comments, or else a summary along the lines as follows:
Ms. Rendleman spoke to Ms. Erickson in an attempt to “clear the air”. She told Ms. Erickson that the voters have made their choice of who they want to represent them. She acknowledged that Ms. Erickson had run a good campaign. She recognized Ms. Erickson’s past volunteer activities with the school district, including holding parent workshops. She then expressed her concerns that Ms. Erickson and/or her associates: (1) have contacted the Regional Office of Education, the Illinois State Board of Education, and even the Department of Education; (2) have submitted five Freedom of Information Requests, and three Requests for Reviews with the Attorney General’s Office; (3) have written in the newspaper and complained about the school district all over the community; and (4) have made telephone calls, sent emails, and sent hundreds of text messages to the board, and especially to the Superintendent. Ms. Rendleman then told Ms. Erickson that she is now a Board member, and she and the Board would have to work together in the future.
Ms. Erickson then accepted her duties and responded to Ms. Rendleman’s expressions of concern. She said that Ms. Rendleman was right: The voters have made their choice and chosen her for the Board. She said she was very glad to be able to serve with the other Board members. She said that: during the campaign, she learned a lot about the community, and they need to be represented. She further said that she is looking forward to getting to know the Board and for the Board to get to know her. She said she believed in keeping communication channels open, but that she did not believe she communicated any more than anyone else with respect to contacting Staff, the Board, or the Superintendent. She said she is expecting good things from her time on the Board, and will work hard to make it successful.
Section 7.11 Vote to accept the Tutoring dollars from the city of Carbondale
Add to the minutes: “Abstain: Erickson” [Her abstension on this vote is missing from the minutes].
Ms. Erickson explained that she abstained because: After attending the two city council meetings and listening to comments, she became very concerned, because the Board was not aggressive in its PR efforts. She said that the Board needed the community’s support, but did not have it at this time. She expressed the concern that the Board had not done what it needs to in order to address these issues with the community. In light of that concern, she abstained from the vote.
Comments are missing
Dr. M. Stalls protested the comments by Ms. Rendleman
Mrs. Margaret Nesbitt thanked the board and welcomed the new members
Ms. Erickson is certainly willing to meet with the Board to discuss these matters as the Board sees fit. She feels that such a meeting could also be productive as a way to address the tension that has caused the Board to express so much hostility towards her.
Please provide some kind of response to me, either collectively or individually.
For the purposes of prompt notification, I am sending this letter by e-mail today. I will send a signed copy to you subsequently by regular mail
Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.
Comments are welcome.