MAHOMET — A clear split between new and longer-serving members of the Mahomet school board was evident in a contentious, more-than-four-hour meeting Monday night.
Among the issues discussed were a complaint by one of the new members accusing the board of multiple violations of the Open Meetings Act and that same board member being accused by community members of “unethical” actions related to the PTO’s annual Dawg Walk fundraiser.
“We’ve got so much dysfunction,” clearly frustrated board member Jeremy Henrichs said at one point.
Open Meetings Act complaint
During comments from board members, President Max McComb voiced displeasure at new member Ken Keefe’s decision to file the Open Meetings Act complaint about two months ago and at being kept in the dark about it until last week, when the attorney general’s office told the district that it was declining to review the case.
“We never knew that anything had been filed,” he said in written statements. “Mr. Keefe never made any effort to discuss any of these issues about filing the complaint with anyone here at the district, never even shared with the entire board or the superintendent that he was planning to file this complaint.
“Mr. Keefe put a lot, lot, lot of time into this complaint, which he filed after he had joined the board, and he even invoked his status as a board member when he filed his complaint,” McComb continued. “And he is entitled to do all of those things. And honestly, if Mr. Keefe or anyone else has concerns, I hope that you raise those concerns. But what disappoints me is that Mr. Keefe did it all in complete secrecy. ... And that is really disappointing as we attempt to establish positive relationships and work together.”
Keefe, one of a trio a candidates elected in April who ran on platforms promising more transparency from the school’s governing body, said he found many alleged violations of the act in reviewing hours of recordings of closed sessions that he did not have access to until he joined the board.
“And I take that very seriously for this board, and really any public body,” Keefe said. “To be clear, a violation of the Open Meetings Act is a Class C misdemeanor. It is breaking the law.
“I don’t know what you fellow board members would do if you saw a law being broken,” he said. “My response would not be to have a conversation with that person breaking the law. ... My response wouldn’t be to talk to them quietly behind the scenes. ... My approach would be to report it to the authorities and let the authorities weigh in on it and take care of it. And that’s also what the Attorney General’s office suggests when people encounter Open Meetings Act violations. And so that’s what I did.”
Keefe he found 78 alleged violations of the act between April 12, 2017, and April 15, 2019, and suggested that the board set a special session to go over them. No such meeting was agreed upon, and in discussion later in the evening, McComb and other longer-serving board members spoke of leaving the past allegations behind and looking ahead.
“Quite frankly, I’m about moving forward,” McComb said. “I’m tired of ‘Gotcha.’ I think what our job now is to police ourselves going forward.”
“I think we can do better,” said Secretary Merle Giles, a veteran board member. “We’ve pledged to do better. We must. And I don’t think there’s any way to go back and rehash it all.”
Meghan Hennesy, elected at the same time as Keefe, sided with him on the overall issue.
“There are very specific reasons that you can go into closed session,” she said. “If you discuss anything else in those closed-session tapes, you are doing it illegally. I concur with Ken. ... I’m going to guess I listened to 100 hours of closed-session tapes. There were numerous instances of discussions that took place that are not appropriate or approved for closed session.”
Hennesy said some of those discussions included “active plans to subvert” new members’ votes “and make sure that you would not get to add things to agendas; if the numbers weren’t right, people wouldn’t show up, so votes couldn’t be taken.”
Colleen Schultz, elected with Keefe and Hennesy, said it’s clear the board has work to do to come together.
“I can agree with Max that we need to have some kind of discussions; we need to figure this out,” she said. “We need to come to some understanding and we need to do it in a legal fashion. We need to figure out how we’ll follow rules.
Early in the meeting, during public comment, two women brought up allegations that Keefe benefitted personally from $26,000 worth of purchases made on behalf of the PTO for its annual Dawg Walk fundraiser.
They said the way the purchases were made — by Keefe using his personal credit card and being reimbursed by the PTO — allowed him to unfairly gain airline miles and cash-back rewards.
Former teacher Sunny McMurry, who has three children in the district, prefaced her remarks by asking the board about its policy on clubs and parent-teacher organizations.
“Why did the PTO pay over $26,000 to one specific person who was named the Dawg Walk chair?” McMurry asked, referring to Keefe, who is listed as “corresponding executive” on the PTO’s website. “The answer I was given during a phone call with the current board president, Ashley Webber, was that it was just easier for last year’s president to have this person buy everything and reimburse him even though the PTO had other options.”
Lisa Frerichs went a step further, asking for Keefe to resign from the school board over the purchases because she said it “shows unethical behavior and possible future intentional behavior.” She said at a previous PTO meeting, she “asked if he thought benefiting personally by gaining miles and cash back for purchases of $26,000-plus was ethical, and he replied, ‘Yes.’ I also asked if he would do it again, and he said, ‘Yes.’”
Frerichs expressed frustration that she and McMurry have not been able to get more detailed answers to their questions or detailed receipts on the purchases from the PTO.
Keefe called the situation “a farce.”
“I’m really disappointed that you guys are continuing this. It’s been made clear to the public that this is a farce,” Keefe said. “You’ve brought these concerns to the PTO. ... The PTO had a public board meeting where you had an opportunity to come and address your concerns. When the PTO responded and stated that they’ve looked into these issues, and they are content with the way things were done ... I don’t believe anything that was done with the PTO was unethical.”
'It just drives me bananas'
Later in the meeting, Henrichs showed anger when it came to his turn to address both issues.
“I don’t even know where to start,” he said. “I’m supposed to presume Ken’s innocence, but we can’t presume the previous board’s innocence? Now I’m telling you, this is nuts. There isn’t anybody who was violating Open Meetings Act purposefully. There was no intent. I was present for the past year.
“So we’re coming in with presumptions someone’s guilty, questioning their honor, and you do something like that,” Henrichs added, referring to how Keefe handled his complaint. “And then we’re supposed to presume you’re innocent. Fine. I don’t know if you’re innocent or not. But don’t come in here and tell me I’m a liar. I mean, it’s ridiculous.
“I can’t understand — I’ve never been on a board like this before. I mean, I don’t know how anybody can keep their composure up here. It just drives me bananas.
“Let’s just get on with business. That’s it,” he said.