Local NAACP troubled by D65 e-mails

Nomaan Merchant

The Illinois Attorney General’s office contacted Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Tuesday regarding alleged violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

The Evanston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has accused board president Mary Rita Luecke of discussing district business with other board members via e-mail without notifying the public.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, the attorney general’s office had not received a formal complaint from the NAACP.

The accusation is the latest twist in the long battle between supporters and detractors of a plan to create an African-centered curriculum pilot program in the district.

For months, the board has discussed establishing the pilot. Some black community members have pushed for such a program for more than a decade to boost black students’ test scores, which have consistently lagged behind those of white students.

In a meeting on March 20, board members approved introducing an African-centered curriculum classroom in kindergarten through second grade at Oakton Elementary School, 436 Ridge Ave.

Starting this fall, about 60 students from around the district will take classes at Oakton with subject matter geared directly toward black culture.

Members of the African American Student Achievement Committee, formed in September to discuss raising black students’ test scores, endorsed a larger proposal to also place the program in Kingsley Elementary School, 2300 Green Bay Rd. But the board rejected this plan before approving the smaller version.

Luecke proposed a third plan, a smaller program that would have a similar pilot program for two grade levels at a separate location, but board members did not vote on her plan.

According to Evanston NAACP president George Mitchell, Luecke circulated the proposal via e-mail to other board members. He said some community members found out about the third proposal the night of the meeting on March 20.

“Items for public view have to be discussed in public,” Mitchell said.

Luecke denied violating the Open Meetings Act, which states that citizens must be notified in advance of public business discussed at government meetings.

“The subject was on the agenda for the evening, and there was discussion of Model A, Model B and Model C (at the meeting),” Luecke said. Luecke refused further comment, saying that her lawyer advised her not to discuss this matter.

Board member Sharon Sheehan said she and other board members received Luecke’s proposal via e-mail by the morning of the meeting. Sheehan said she thought no wrongdoing occurred.

But Illinois Public Access Counselor Terry Mutchler said in a Tuesday letter to the district that exchanging e-mails regarding public business “may violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the (Open Meetings) Act.”

“The act exists to ensure that the actions of public bodies are taken openly and that their deliberations are conducted openly,” Mutchler’s letter read. “E-mail or Internet chat rooms cannot be used to circumvent this policy.”

Violating the act carries civil and criminal penalties including fines of up to $1,500 and jail sentences of up to 30 days. Mutchler said such penalties are unlikely in this case.

Some board members said they were worried about Luecke’s actions.

“The board president circumvented transparency by crafting the proposal,” board member Marianne Kountoures said. “What it shows is the president’s unwillingness to work with the superintendent.”

Superintendent Hardy Murphy could not be reached for comment.

Board member Jerome Summers left the meeting after the first proposal was rejected, and accused Luecke and other board members of disregarding black children.

“I saw the pain in the people of my community and felt that my whole community had been disrespected,” Summers said.

Summers called the presentation of the third proposal “arrogant” and said the NAACP’s claim is worth investigating.

“It has all the appearances that they tried to replace the proposal of the superintendent and the African American Student Achievement Committee with their own proposal,” Summers said.

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]