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AG office: Teacher contract doesn't have to be disclosed

STERLING – Sauk Valley Media is asking the state attorney general’s office to reconsider its opinion that the Sterling School District’s refusal to make public a contract agreement with teachers doesn’t violate the Freedom of Information Act.

Meanwhile, school district Superintendent Tad Everett said this week that there will not be another vote on the agreement, which he has called a “preliminary first draft.”

Before and after the school board voted July 5 to approve what the meeting agenda called a “two-year collective bargaining agreement” with teachers, Everett denied SVM’s request for a copy of the contract.

Last month, Illinois Assistant Attorney General Steve Silverman sent a letter to SVM saying Everett was correct.

He wrote that the contract is exempt from disclosure under section 7(1)(f) of the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts from inspection and copying “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated. ...”

Silverman wrote that Everett, in a telephone message with the state AG’s office, confirmed that the school board and the teachers’ union have not agreed to final contract language or signed a contract. Silverman wrote that Everett told him the board had voted on only “contract terms.”

SVM Executive Editor Larry Lough sent a letter July 24 to Sliverman, asking him to reconsider. He has not yet responded.

Don Craven, general counsel for the Illinois Press Association, said the contract can’t be a preliminary draft because both the board and Sterling Education Association voted to approve it. The teachers union ratified the agreement on June 18-19, but union representative Denise Harts would not give SVM any details.

“Apparently this was a vote on a binding contract,” Craven said. “It’s over. There’s nothing preliminary about this. Either there is an agreement or there is not an agreement.”

He added, “The board should not have voted on a contract that is preliminary. How do they know what they voted on?

“By analogy, if they passed a resolution approving the contract with the local Chevy dealer to buy a car, that’s a contract,” Craven said. “Are you going to call the Chevy dealer next week and say, ‘Well, it was preliminary. We didn’t mean it’?”

After the board approved the agreement, Everett released a list of highlights, which include a “soft freeze,” meaning that wages remain the same but teachers can increase their salary based on education and years of service.

Craven said that as long as the contract is not disclosed to the public, it is unclear to him whether all parties agree on what a soft freeze is.

“Does the union have the same understanding [of a soft freeze]?” he asked.

School Board President Jim Brotheridge and board member Jim McPherson declined to comment on the record about the vote and contract.

Board members Bob Allen, Gail Dancey, Jay Van Horn, Marc Geil, and Terry McGuire did not return calls seeking comment.

Everett said teacher contracts often take months to be finalized and printed. The past two agreements, he said, were printed in the late fall, or in December or January, and distributed at the mid-year teacher evaluations in January.

He said the reason for the wait is that this is a busy time of year for the school district’s attorney, Cindi DeCola of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick and Kohn, LLP.

The law firm, based in Arlington Heights, represents one-third of Illinois’ school districts, Everett said, so it is busy working on other contracts.

“By the time you have four to five parties look at it to make sure it’s legally accurate as well as represents their interests and ours, that’s a lengthy process,” he said.

Everett reaffirmed Wednesday that there would be no second board vote on the contract once the language is finalized.

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