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Educating in the dark

School boards want a reprieve from state FOIA

Published: Monday, Dec. 10, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT

As a journalist, I have filed thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests with Illinois school districts and uncovered major personnel problems and cases of criminals teaching.

So please forgive me if I’m a bit touchy when I hear school districts want to make it more difficult for the public to hold them accountable – or even know what they are up to.

But that is exactly what would happen under a resolution from the Illinois Association of School Boards to change Illinois open records laws.

Roger Eddy, IASB executive director and a former state lawmaker, noted that the resolution initially was passed by his members well before he took the helm of the organization this year. But he added it is something his members want.

“This doesn’t surprise me,” said Josh Sharp, a lobbyist for the Illinois Press Association. “It’s typical of how public bodies in this state think they should be able to operate – with a special set of rules for themselves. Frankly, it’s a slap in the face to the taxpayers who pay their salaries.”

Adam Andrzejewski, founder of For the Good of Illinois, was more blunt.

“Groups such as these use tax dollars to lobby against the interests of taxpayers,” he said.

It works like this: Member school districts use tax dollars to pay dues to IASB. Then, Eddy and the association pay lobbyists to push legislation supported by the association. Sometimes, this legislation is aimed at keeping the public in the dark about how tax dollars are being used.

Here are some of the things the IASB’s FOIA resolution calls for:

n Increase allowable FOIA response time from 5 business days to 10 business days.

n Exclude official school breaks in business day response time.

n Allow denials for commercial purposes.

n Allow denials for any request that is deemed “unduly burdensome.”

n Allow a request to be denied if it is “unduly burdensome” to the public body if the public body deems compliance with the request would result in excessive response costs.

n Exempt employment applications of individuals who apply for high-profile positions.

n Eliminate requirement that public bodies give a detailed legal explanation when indicating why they are claiming an exemption.

n Allow public bodies to seek review of a binding opinion of the Public Access Counselor in the county in which they are located.

Getting the

debate going

At least since the days Gov. Dan Walker (1973-77), there have been calls for better disclosure laws to provide the public with more information on potential economic conflicts of interest of their elected officials.   

And for the last year, the Better Government Association has been working behind the scenes to drum up support for a law that would require more information be provided in the Statements of Economic Interests that all elected officials are required to fill out.

The BGA said the bill would require officials to report:

n Assets valued at more than $10,000;

n Additional sources of income in excess of $2,500;

n Debts over $5,000 incurred by or owed to the filer, other than those owed to a financial institution;

n Lobbyists with whom the filer has an economic relationship;

n Family members of the filer, including a spouse, child, step-child, parent, step-parent or sibling, who are lobbyists registered with any unit of government in Illinois; and

n Gifts with a value of $500 or more.

The push to disclose whether a lawmaker is related to a lobbyist is relatively new.

Last year, Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, got into a confrontation on the floor of the Illinois Senate with Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon.

McCarter had noted Sen. Jacobs sponsored legislation backed by Commonwealth Edison even though his father, Denny Jacobs, was a lobbyist retained by ComEd.

Here is what Denny Jacobs said Tuesday night when asked what he thought of the bill:

“As many ----- ---- times as The Dispatch and the Quad-City Times have written about me being a lobbyist, if people in Mike’s district don’t know it already, we have a real problem.”

Note to readers – Scott Reeder’s column is underwritten by the Illinois Policy Institute.

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