Illinois state school board votes to oust members of East St. Louis board
Update on Thursday:
The Illinois State Board of Education voted unanimously today to oust the elected board of East St. Louis School District 189.
The vote directs state superintendent Christopher Koch to have the regional school superintendent remove the board, then have Koch appoint replacements. Koch was also directed to establish performance criteria to track progress in the district that could eventually lead to restoration of the local elected board.
After voting to replace the East St. Louis board, the state board also voted unanimously to take the same action in the North Chicago school district.
Our earlier story:
The Illinois State Board of Education heard pleas Wednesday for it to dismiss all of the members of the East St. Louis school board – and also for it to leave the board in place so local residents will have a say in how District 189 conducts business.
The testimony on both sides came one day before the board is expected to vote on a proposal by Christopher Koch, state superintendent of education, to overturn an agreement made with the school district just last year and oust members of the elected board as of July 1.
In a letter sent to board members in April, Koch said he was making the recommendation because board members were not acting in the best interests of the students. The local board agreed last May to enter into the agreement with the state after years of poor academic achievement and financial instability.
At Wednesday’s session, held via videoconference in Springfield and Chicago and broadcast on the board’s website, Garrett Hoerner, attorney for the District 189 board, argued that state law does not allow the action Koch calls. He also said that the particulars spelled out by Koch in his letter to board members in April had been reversed, so that the state board no longer had grounds to dismiss local board members.
Specifically, Hoerner said that more than 120 school districts in Illinois currently have had one or more schools on academic watch for more than three years, yet the state was not moving to remove local board members of the vast majority of those districts.
To act against District 189 while not acting against those other districts would be discriminatory and unconstitutional, Hoerner said.
“The equal protection clause says that those who are in the same situation must be treated in a similar manner,” he asserted.
For the state to act to end its agreement with East St. Louis schools after just one year would mean it is not acting in the best interest of the district or its students, he said, and it would be unfair to members of the board of education.
He said the agreement with the state already gives the state board the power to make decisions, but such decisions should be made with the input of locally elected board members. Further, he said that the local board agreed to the pact with the state last year with the understanding that local views would remain part of the discussion.
He cited letters of support filed by many public officials, including state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville; state Rep. Eddie Jackson, D-East St. Louis; and East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks. Those letters, he said, show that the elected school board members have the backing of the people they serve.
“They know the communities,” Hoerner said. “They have the support of community leaders.”
He concluded by saying that in difficult times like the ones that District 189 has been going through for the past several years, stability is needed, not the upheaval that the ouster of the board members would bring.
“These are certainly trying times for school districts,” Hoerner said, “especially this district that is dependent on ever-decreasing state funding.”
His views were echoed briefly by Lonzo Greenwood, president of the elected board, who noted that the board has made tough decisions such as closing five elementary schools for the coming school year. He said such moves had caused tremendous uproar in the community.
Speaking in favor of the state’s ouster of the local school board was Kevin Sheridan of Fairview Heights, who said he grew up in East St. Louis. He criticized not only the District 189 board but also Koch, who he said has been lax in moving to put the district on the right path.
“The actions of this board have been dismal at best,” he said. “It’s all been about politics, nepotism and cronyism, and the past 10 years have been the worst.”
Citing what he called financial irresponsibility on the part of the district as well as poor academic achievement, he said how shocked he was to get a recent property tax bill and to note that his rate for District 189 had increased by 30 percent, creating a hardship on families who live in the district.
“The very people they want to educate,” Sheridan said, “they are taxing out of their homes.”
Calling such increases “legalized theft,” he added: “The question shouldn’t be should we remove the board but when do we remove the board.”
Among the actions by the local board that Koch criticized in his letter in April were the hiring of attorney Pearson Bush at $6,000 a month; the extension of a lease with the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center; and a push to offer binding contracts to non-certified administrators that Koch said “would only benefit the employees,” including Greenwood’s daughter and relatives of two other board members.
The state board is weighing a similar request to take actions against board members in the North Chicago school district.