DECATUR — Decatur school board members expressed concern during a closed session discussion about the public backlash that could result if they moved ahead with the awarding of a proposed $30,000 bonus to Assistant Superintendent Jeff Dase.
The Oct. 27 discussion was among the closed session recordings, released Wednesday afternoon, that the board voted to make public during its meeting Tuesday.
Portions of the Oct. 27 closed session, as well as portions of the closed executive sessions held Sept. 8 and 22, were found by the Illinois Attorney General's Office to include discussions that fell outside the exceptions to the Open Meetings Act.
During the Oct. 27 closed session, Board President Beth Nolan asked board members to offer their opinions on whether it was prudent to move forward with the bonus. The release of the board's agenda a few days before the meeting, which included reference to the bonus, was met with much public opposition.
A review of the recordings by the Herald & Review show that during the closed session held prior to the public portion of the Oct. 27 meeting, board member Courtney Carson noted concern that Dase had created the rubric used to judge his job performance that prompted consideration of the bonus.
Board member Regan Lewis, also weighed in, saying opposition to the bonus from the community and Decatur Public Schools staff was significant enough to seriously consider withholding approval. Approving the bonus could have ramifications for the board's credibility as well, she added.
"You have to understand what it looks like for him, the political ramifications of what he's asking for here, what he's asking us to do, by giving this to him right now," Lewis said. "If we keep going down this path we're on right now, things are going to keep getting messier and messier and it's going to impact our ability to get things done and have credibility. I'm concerned that we're undermining Jeff again, that we didn't need to, that he's going to have more of a problem going forward. I don't want him to be unsuccessful and I want him to be able to implement and do the things he wants to do, but this is just not working."
With four board seats up for election in April 2021, Lewis said, their chances for re-election could be harmed and Dase would lose their support. If four new board members were to be elected, Lewis said, the opinions of the three board members still on the board after the election — Lewis, Andrew Taylor and Dan Oakes — wouldn't carry much weight.
"(Candidates are) going to target Jeff," Carson said. "The main focal point of running is going to be to unseat Beth Nolan and this board, including ourselves, and to get Jeff the hell out of here."
The board ultimately voted against the bonus. The four board members whose seats were up for election — Nolan, Carson, Beth Creighton and Kendall Briscoe — did not run for re-election. Four new board members — Alana Banks, Kevin Collins-Brown, Jason Dion and Al Scheider — were elected on April 6. They will be seated in May.
The Herald & Review and WAND-TV previously filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the school district seeking the closed session recordings. Those requests were denied and challenges filed. The newspaper also requested emails among senior district staff.
The requests were made in response to complaints the board discussed and voted in closed session to award Dase the bonus, which would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act. The discussion is allowed under the closed meeting exceptions, but not a vote.
In response to the WAND challenge, a review of recordings by the Illinois Attorney General's Office resulted in the finding that even though the board did hold an informal vote approving the bonus, the final vote was taken in open session, and any violation caused by the informal vote was deemed moot. During the public portion of the Oct. 27 meeting, the board voted against awarding the bonus.
However, a letter dated March 10 from Joshua Jones, deputy chief of the Public Access Bureau of the Attorney General's office, stated that a review of the recordings by the bureau found violations of the Open Meetings Act.
Those violations included making changes in its organizational chart to create a new position; attributes the board sought in potential candidates for open positions; whether to proceed with an agenda item and what course of action to take on that matter; and how to prevent a document from being disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. None of those discussions meet the exceptions.
The board's attorney, Brian Braun, did warn the board during those sessions that some of their discussion was inappropriate for a closed session. Discussion of specific employees' performance, compensation and discipline is allowed.
A review of the released recordings include a discussion concerning the creation of a new position of director of labor relations and moving then-Director of Human Resources Deanne Hillman to that position, where she could advise and help a new director of human resources.
The discussion was deemed inappropriate because it included the attributes the board wanted to see in potential candidates. Talk centered around whether a candidate should come from within the district or an outsider who would not have ties to union representation, with attorney Braun advising the board that collective bargaining and Illinois School Code complexities would indicate the need for a candidate already intimately familiar with those complexities.
The Decatur Education Association, Braun said, could be "tremendously aggressive" and the Human Resources and Labor Relations directors would need to be able to understand and negotiate in those circumstances.
"That's why we've been training up Jeff (Dase)," Nolan said. "If there's one person that's not going to be intimidated by them, it's him."
Watch now: Recordings of Decatur school board closed sessions
Audio recordings released Wednesday show Decatur school board members expressed concern during a closed session discussion about the public backlash that could result if they moved ahead with the awarding of a proposed $30,000 bonus to Assistant Superintendent Jeff Dase.
Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter