Transparency advocate hopes Yorkville book flap raises awareness

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer

Mary Grzywa isn’t part of the Yorkville community, but she hopes that her stepping into a community issue makes public bodies there — and elsewhere in the state — more transparent.

Grzywa was one of the people who contacted the Illinois Attorney General’s Office after members of the Yorkville School District 115 Board met in closed session on two different occasions to discuss removing a book from a Yorkville High School English class’s curriculum.

“It’s up to the community to decide the school curriculum, but the discussion has to be in public,” Grzywa said. “If you are going to debate the curriculum, that has to be done in public.”

The Illinois Open Meetings Act allows for public body discussions to be done in closed session for 40 reasons, but curriculum is not one of them. Public bodies are allowed to go into executive sessions for personnel decisions, land purchases, pending litigation and other issues that could be impeded or altered through public discussions. For example, talking in a public session about buying property for the governing body could drive up the price of the land.

Grzywa said she ran across a newspaper article about District 115’s decision to pull the book “Just Mercy”, from an English class curriculum after a closed-session discussion.

“I was interested initially not in the board’s decision and whether or not I agreed with it, but with the obvious open records violation,” Grzywa said.

She said the board’s decision-making process seemed flawed.

“It struck me as really odd. I had not read the book at that point, but I reached out to the Attorney General’s Office and said, ‘Hey, look into this request,’” Grzywa said. “It seemed like they were making a strong-arm decision, and they were trying to do it in secret.”

The Marseilles resident said she had experience with the Illinois Opens Meeting Act when serving on the Seneca Library Board.

After filing her complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, Gryzwa read “Just Mercy”, a memoir by attorney Bryan Stevenson that documents his career defending disadvantaged clients.

“I was glad to see that it aligned with my feeling that kids in high school are old enough to be reading about hard subjects,” Grzywa said. “It was alarming to me that the board wanted to avoid a hard subject. That doesn’t bode well for a community.”

She said the School District’s lawyers said the parent who initially complained about the book said that another book should also be included in that English class’s curriculum. The parent said there should also be a book which presents the view that the sentencing of criminals is commensurate with the crimes they have committed, according to Grzywa.

“I am not a sociologist, but I think it would be hard to find a credible book that would make that claim,” Grzwya said.

She said every book’s viewpoint does not need to be counterbalanced in the curriculum.

“If a school includes the Bible as literature, do you want an opposing view to that?” Grzwya asked.

The Marseilles resident said she has not gotten any negative feedback from anyone in Yorkville regarding her first, and probably only, complaint to the Attorney General’s Office.

“This is not a hobby for me,” Grzywa said of her complaint.

She hoped the incident is a wake-up call to residents in Yorkville and throughout the region.

“People need to know who they are putting on their boards,” Grzywa said. “Are you getting people who listen to a single unhappy parent whose child is exposed to ideas he or she does not necessarily agree with or are you getting people who will do what develops and creates critical analysis in students?”

Neither District 115 School Board members nor district attorneys could be reached for comment.