NEWS

Springfield School Board refuses to release details of new teachers contract

Pete Sherman

The public will not get to know what’s in a new teachers contract before it is approved by the Springfield School Board.

Alex Ikejiaku, the District 186 director of human resources, said Monday the details of the contract will not be released until next Monday, which is when the school board is slated to vote on it. The contract was ratified by teachers late last month.

School district officials met with the Springfield Education Association on Monday to discuss whether elements of the contract should be released to the public before the board’s vote.

Ikejiaku said afterward that those details will be kept private until approved by the board.

Monday’s meeting followed a similar one last Friday, when a list of contract highlights originally was supposed to have been made public, but SEA and district officials suddenly decided against releasing any information.

On Friday, Ikejiaku said disclosing details of the agreement might give unions still negotiating with the district an edge in their talks. He also said officials needed to comb the contract for errors and noted that it isn’t official until the board approves it.

There’s no universal approach to disclosing details of new teachers contracts in Illinois. However, some advocates say it’s good public policy to share such matters with the public, especially for multiyear commitments involving millions in taxpayer dollars.

A poll of Springfield School Board members came back mostly on the side of disclosure. Five of the seven board members could be reached, and four — board president Erin Conley, Bill Looby, Art Moore and Cheryl Wise — supported providing the public with at least contract highlights. Judy Johnson opposed the idea.

However, Conley changed her view toward disclosure following the board’s work session Monday night.

“We’ve addressed administrative concerns of finalizing the details, and no, (it won’t be released) at this time,” she said. “I was not able to find any other examples of other unions that released contract details before they were finalized. I don’t think that precedence has been set. We are still fine-tuning a number of things in the contract. From our administration’s perspective, we need to do this, too.” 

Two board members — Melinda LaBarre and Cindy Tate — did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

School Superintendent Walter Milton, whose first year on the job wraps up this month, said he sees both sides.

“All I can say is, I do understand the value of the administration doing its due diligence before making sure the board is ready to ratify a new contract,” Milton said. “At the same time, I see the value of making sure the community is aware of some of the negotiated items. It’s important that there’s a symbiotic relationship.”

The reluctance to disclose puzzled David Morrison, deputy director of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a statewide government watchdog organization.

“There are areas that are exempt (from Freedom of Information Act requests), where the issues are so sensitive,” Morrison said Monday. “But in this instance, where negotiations are done, it has been ratified by the union, and all that the contract is waiting for is ratification by the board, it certainly seems odd.”

By law, teacher union negotiations and ratifications are not subject to Freedom of Information Act and Open Meeting Act rules.

But Morrison said that doesn’t really matter.

“FOIA and the Open Meetings Act are floors, not ceilings,” he said. “It’s not to say they’re not free to go above and beyond or can’t be good people and make it public anyway.”

Rhys Saunders contributed to this report. Pete Sherman can be reached at (217) 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.