Board officers' vote may have had outside influence

CHAMPAIGN — Emails exchanged between Champaign school board members about the board's recent reorganization of officers show someone from outside the board may have campaigned for one member in particular to be its president.

The News-Gazette obtained school board members' emails on the topic through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The newspaper requested copies of all emails regarding the 2013 school board reorganization sent or received by current board members Laurie Bonnett, Jamar Brown, Ileana Saveley, Lynn Stuckey, Stig Lanesskog, Kristine Chalifoux, Scott MacAdam; former board members Dave Tomlinson, Phil Van Ness and Arlene Blank; as well as Superintendent Judy Wiegand.

The school district filled the request with eight emails.

The News-Gazette also filed a request asking for all other electronic communications among those individuals on that topic, and the school district responded that it had "no records that are responsive to this request."

In one April 22 email to Lanesskog, who's the former board president, Stuckey mentioned another email she received, "from a person who is not on our board" soliciting her support for another board member as president.

Stuckey was sworn in May 6, as were Bonnett and MacAdam. Bonnett was elected president that evening.

Bonnett voted for herself as president, as did Stuckey, Brown and Saveley. Lanesskog voted for himself as president, as did Chalifoux and MacAdam.

Lanesskog replied to Stuckey's email the same day that he still wanted to be considered for president and said he'd spoken with continuing and new board members and none indicated an interest in the presidency "and seemed to want me to continue."

"Again, this is up to the board," he wrote.

As to the email Stuckey mentioned, Lanesskog wrote that he wasn't sure what to think about individuals outside the board soliciting support for members to hold certain positions.

Stuckey replied that day with more information about the email she'd received, adding that she didn't know if the board member in question was aware he or she was being "promoted for board president." She included no names.

"I am not certain if the party who sent me the email is campaigning on their own personal whim, or if this is something being organized at a 'grass roots' level," she wrote. "The request came from ... someone I have worked with in the past on other issues and (that person's) involvement with (the board member in question) may be on a friend-on-friend level.

"(The non-member) definitely has an agenda; don't know if (he or she) has considered how this request might impact future issues/items they want me to work on with them," Stuckey wrote.

Stuckey went on to write that she was surprised to receive the email, "and I am not inclined to support (the board member in question) for a variety of reasons."

"I would be willing to support (that board member) for any other office ... but I have not spoken to (him or her) to see if they are interested in one of those three offices," Stuckey wrote. "Please feel confident that you have my continued support and I am still planning on voting for you as board president."

Lanesskog replied: "Yes, there are some individuals in the community who have agendas that we need to take into account when we interact with them."

Lanesskog just wanted what was best for all students, he wrote Stuckey.

Stuckey did not respond to multiple requests from The News-Gazette for comment.

She hadn't been sworn in as a board member at the time she emailed Lanesskog. No other emails she sent or received were included in the school district's response to the newspaper's Freedom of Information Act request.

The night of the swearing in and reorganization, Bonnett mentioned an email Lanesskog sent to board members about the reorganization, asking them to let him know if they were interested in holding office on the board.

Bonnett said then she found the email "inappropriate" and didn't respond.

Lanesskog said that night he was trying to facilitate the reorganization process and asked board members not to reply to the group in order not to violate the Open Meetings Act.

"I thought it would be helpful to consider a slate beforehand, if people were willing to share that information ... to facilitate a smooth transition," he said that night.

Bonnett said Thursday that it was after Lanesskog's email to the group that it was "suggested to me that I might want to run for board president."

Bonnett declined to comment about whether that suggestion came from someone inside or outside the board.

"I'm just not willing to share that information," Bonnett said. "I don't think it's relevant. That's my opinion."

She said she believed Lanesskog's email to the group "raised questions as to the leadership going forward."

Bonnett said she believes the people now on the school board "are very different from previous board members."

"We have people who are very vocal about their opinions and haven't until now had the ability to be heard," Bonnett said. "I think for me, that's the biggest difference as to the make-up of the board, and I think that's important."

She said the seven members of the board are "looking to find our way together" and haven't yet spent much time together, only one full meeting since being sworn in.

Jamar Brown, who became the board's vice president May 6, said Thursday that he "didn't do a whole lot of talking about it," referring to the board's reorganization prior to the meeting, other than expressing interest his interest to Lanesskog in becoming vice president. He said no one solicited his support for any other board member to serve in a particular office.

He said he voted for Bonnett because he thought she'd do a good job.

"I just think she would be a good fit for that position, even though there's a strong learning curve," Brown said. "I told her I'd be willing to help her to make sure she's successful."

Chalifoux and MacAdam also said no one solicited their support for a particular person.

MacAdam said he hadn't considered anyone other than Lanesskog for the position prior to the reorganization. He thought Lanesskog did a good job as the board's previous president, which is why he voted as he did.

Chalifoux said she thought Lanesskog was a good leader but is happy with the board as it is now.

"The school board will work and function as well as it always has because we have great leadership amongst our many board members," Chalifoux said. "To me, we as a board need to always work together, regardless of who is (leading). I think we have excellent people and I don't have any hesitations about where we're going as a school board."

Lanesskog said Thursday that he wasn't aware that anyone else was interested in being the board's president, which is why he voted for himself. At the time, he believed that was what the board wanted, he said.

He's happy with the board's leadership now, though, he said, his concern is first and foremost the students and families the district serves.

"I'm looking forward to working with the group going forward," he said.

Ileana Saveley did not respond to a request for comment.

James Russell, spokesman for the Illinois Association of School Boards, spoke generally about community members' influence on board leadership.

It's the board's decision, he said, but he doesn't see a problem with community members expressing their opinions about who should lead, especially if they have insight to a board member's qualifications or leadership skills.

"It could be a person in the community who knows the board members, who has experience with them, who has had previous contact and knows these people, their character and qualifications," Russell said. "On the surface, I don't know that there's any harm in that, generally speaking."

The association doesn't comment on boards' individual circumstances, he said.

The reorganization process is important because it's the first thing a board does as a group, he said.

"It's important for the future of the board that this person is elected among their peers is supported by their peers," Russell said. "The president may often be the spokesperson for many things and will be the person who interacts with the superintendent as they set the board agendas, to discuss what the board wants or needs from administration.

The board president also runs meetings, "steering and guiding the meeting from beginning to end in a deliberate, hopefully efficient manner," he said.

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bambenek wrote on May 31, 2013 at 9:05 am

Will the News-Gazette put those e-mails online? Would be valuable to see the response to the FOIA ourselves to shed some light on the entire context of those emails.

Meg Dickinson wrote on May 31, 2013 at 9:05 am
Profile Picture

There's a link to the PDF above, but for your convenience, click here.

 

- Meg

bambenek wrote on May 31, 2013 at 9:05 am

Oops, see it now, sorry.  The link color is very close to the normal text color on this site so it's easy to miss.

sweet caroline wrote on May 31, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I can't see any different colors at all in the text.  Not everyone has good eyesight, News-Gazette.  Make the links in RED the next time.

sacrophyte wrote on May 31, 2013 at 1:05 pm
wayward wrote on May 31, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Not sure how newsworthy this is if all the "non-member" did was send email making his/her opinions known.  If there was any attempt to bribe or coerce, that'd be a problem, but it doesn't seem like there was.