Judge extends order blocking ouster of E. St. Louis school board
A judge has extended his order blocking the state of Illinois from removing members of the East St. Louis school board, but he acknowledged that the final decision in the case will be made at a level higher than his own.
St. Clair County Associate Judge Stephen Rice, who issued a temporary restraining order last month after the Illinois State Board of Education moved to oust members of the elected school board in District 189, issued an injunction after a hearing Monday morning.
At the hearing, James Williams, attorney for the five board members who are challenging the state move, argued that the law is vague and unconstitutional and said the state’s action against East St. Louis was racially motivated.
Terence Corrigan, with the Illinois attorney general’s office, denied the racial allegation, calling it “reckless,” and said the law in question already has been upheld by the state’s supreme court.
After hearing both sides, Rice said that less harm would result from keeping the board in place, giving both sides to amass evidence for further court action, than would occur if he removed the board and its replacement took actions that were later overturned by a higher court.
He also noted his understanding of the wider issues of the case, pointing out that he was born in East St. Louis and had represented both the city and the school district as an attorney in the 1980s.
“As a lifelong resident of this community,” Rice said, “I am not blind to the realities, not just of the politics but also the state of education in our communities.
“No matter what I do, it will be a higher court that will decide this case.”
The state board of education voted last month to remove members of the local boards in East St. Louis and North Chicago because of longstanding academic and financial deficiencies. Christopher Koch, the state superintendent of education, called the unanimous vote a move that will help the district’s 7,000 students; Gery Chico, head of the state board, said he hoped it would represent not just a change on the board but a “sea change” in the long-troubled East St. Louis schools.
The next day, five of the seven district board members -- President Lonzo Greenwood, Vice President LaVondia Neely, George Mitchom, Victoria Clay and Kinnis Williams – filed suit challenging the state action, and Rice issued the temporary restraining order that expired Monday morning.
Greenwood had no comment after Rice’s latest ruling.
In their suit, and in arguments in court Monday, the plaintiffs noted that more than 120 Illinois school districts are currently on a watch list because of poor academic achievement, but only the boards in East St. Louis and North Chicago – both of which are predominantly African-American – have been ousted.
Such action is discriminatory, Williams said, and is based on a part of the Illinois school code that is unconstitutionally vague.
“What they are trying to do is remove the citizens’ right to vote,” he argued, adding:
“The citizens of East St. Louis made their choice and it’s their constitutional right to make that choice.”
If the board is removed, he said, and a new authority is named, as the state board voted, any actions it may take could be called into question if a court ultimately finds that the ouster was illegal.
“That to me is a huge harm,” Williams said, adding that the board members would suffer personal harm because of their ouster.
“Each one of them is working very diligently as an elected member of the school board,” he said.
In response, Corrigan that to accept the argument of the local board members, Rice would have to overrule the state supreme court, which he said has ruled that the law used to oust the District 189 board members is constitutional.
The case in which that ruling occurred posed “the exact same situation we have here,” Corrigan said.
Denying that there is any racial component to the state board’s actions, Corrigan said that the ouster vote occurred only because students in East St. Louis have consistently failed to meet the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind education law.
“The children of East St. Louis are being left far behind,” he said, “and something needs to be done…. There is no evidence whatsoever that the board acted for racial reasons.”
Far from harm being done to members of the local school board if they are removed, Corrigan said that in reality, “the harm is to the public and to the children of East St. Louis” if they remain in office.
The vote by the state board came about one year after board members in District 189 accepted an agreement giving state education officials a large measure of control over district operations. A new superintendent, Arthur Culver, took over in September.
But state officials said the East St. Louis board violated the agreement by taking several actions earlier this year against the wishes of the state. After Koch sent board members a letter complaining about those moves and saying he planned to seek their ouster, the board rescinded the objectionable votes, but Koch and the state board proceeded to carry out their removal.