Yorkville School Board reprimanded for closed-door talks

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer

The book “Just Mercy” was removed from Yorkville High School curriculum after a complaint by a parent.

Yorkville District 115 School Board members broke the law by talking about curriculum matters in executive sessions, according to the state’s top law enforcement officer.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said that the Yorkville district’s Board of Education violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act when they talked about banning an English class novel behind closed doors.

The 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 discussion.

Raoul’s office reviewed the tape recordings of the closed sessions in making the determination about the Open Meetings Act violation.

Members of the Yorkville School Board have claimed they were justified in going behind closed doors May 22 and Aug. 7 under several OMA exemptions including the possibility of acting against the teacher who recommended the text.

“It is abundantly clear from the verbatim recording that the board was not in closed session to evaluate any specific employee’s job performance or actions, but to make a curriculum decision about the book ‘Just Mercy,’” Brent Statton, chief deputy attorney general, said.

The board also contended that going into closed sessions was justified so as not to identify the parent — and, subsequently, the student — who filed the grievance and appeal regarding the board’s initial decision to leave the book in the curriculum.

“The recording shows that at the outset of the discussion, the board acknowledged that the purpose of the closed session was not really to discuss the grievance, but to decide whether to uphold its previous decision about the book or to remove it from the curriculum entirely,” Statton said. “The vast majority of the discussion concerned the merits of having ‘Just Mercy’ as part of the curriculum, what other curriculum options the board had, and the board’s approach to curriculum in general.”

Statton did say that during the Aug. 7 executive session the board did spend a short time discussing the parent’s May 31 complaint that she was not being afforded access to instruction materials per district guidelines.

“The board then spent more than an hour discussing what to do about ‘Just Mercy’ as a curriculum matter moving forward,” Statton said.

“Just Mercy” is a memoir by attorney Bryan Stevenson that documents his career defending disadvantaged clients.

The complaining parent initially alleged that the “Yorkville High School principal and English Department leader knowingly allowed School Board Policy 6.8 to be violated by assigning a novel in which the theme was America is systemically racist against black and brown people, which is a political opinion not a fact.”

Mary Grzywa of Marseilles had filed the request that the Attorney General’s Office examine the Yorkville board’s actions.

Grzywa contested the board’s actions and arguments.

“It is entirely possible to discuss curriculum and policy in open session, closing only for the actual personnel matter,” Grzywa said. “The rhetorical analysis appropriateness of ‘Just Mercy’ can be discussed without discussion of specific staff actions and divulging confidential material.”

She added that the board ducked behind the “personnel” exemption in doing their “Just Mercy” discussions behind closed doors.

“The intentional co-mingling of curriculum discussion with personnel matters has deprived the public of transparency to which they are entitled regarding this curriculum decision,” Grzywa said.

Yorkville District 115 School Board has until Feb. 1 to seek a judicial review of the attorney general’s decision by filing a complaint for administrative review in the Circuit Court of Cook County or Sangamon County.

School Board members did not respond to requests for comment on the case and whether they will contest the attorney general’s decision.