Following the August 2007 resignation of former District 209 superintendent Stan Fields, administrators for the public high school system clammed up when pressed for details of a severance package that helped grease the doorway for Fields’ departure. Over the course of several months the Forest Park Review repeatedly requested information and records documenting the use of public funds in that agreement, and was denied each time.
But in a recent phone interview, outgoing Superintendent Bob Libka confirmed that the district paid Fields $100,000 as part of a severance package. That figure was reported recently by another suburban newspaper that covers the township high schools.
In a news story published in mid-May, Pioneer Press reporter Chuck Fieldman wrote that the district’s attorney, Michael Del Galdo, provided the information in response to the newspaper’s request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The story also acknowledges the district previously denied similar requests, but does not state why school administrators reversed themselves.
In an interview regarding the Pioneer Press report, Del Galdo said the district’s understanding of previous requests is that the requested documentation was exempt from public right-to-know laws.
“The figure had not previously been released … because we did not have a proper FOIA request that asked for just the amount,” Del Galdo said of the district’s handling of the matter.
Proviso Township High School District 209 will still be advised not to release copies of the actual severance agreement, said Del Galdo, but “other documentation” may be provided.
On Aug. 29, 2007, the Review requested in writing that District 209 provide “documentation that stipulates to any and all compensation to be paid to Stan Fields per his resignation as the superintendent of District 209.” The newspaper also requested a copy of the former superintendent’s employment contract, in its entirety.
Libka speculated that Del Galdo balked at the Review’s requests because the newspaper sought to obtain copies of those records, rather than a simple verbal confirmation of what was paid, which is what was granted to the Pioneer Press.
“I think there was a hang up in providing the documents; whether that was legal,” Libka said.
Under the state’s freedom of information law, public records must be turned over within seven working days, though government agencies can request additional time to respond. In a Sept. 11 letter signed by Libka, the superintendent exercised the right to use this additional time because “the requested records require examination and evaluation to determine if they are exempt from disclosure.”
One week later the district responded to the Review’s request that the information would not be released and is “exempt from disclosure” because it is tied to “contractual issues.”
The Review appealed the decision to the district, as allowed under state law. That request, too, was denied, this time in a response from Del Galdo stipulating that records maintained in an employee’s personnel file are exempt from public scrutiny.
The newspaper solicited input from the Illinois Press Association, which, on Oct. 17, sent a letter to the high school district imploring the administration to release the records.
“(E)ven if one was to concede that personnel files are per se exempt from disclosure … it does not follow that the individual contracts remain per se exempt simply because they are kept in those files,” Beth Bennett, director of government affairs for the IPA, said in her response.
Most recently, the Review has been preparing to file suit against District 209 to obtain release of those documents. The suit would be undertaken in conjunction with the Illinois Press Association First Amendment Center.