Better Government Association Sues School District Over FOIA Flap

Schiller Park school district refuses to release "confidentiality agreements" under Illinois Freedom of Information Act, even though the law is clear and every other Cook County school district complied with request. So the BGA is headed to court.

Contacts:
Mary Frances O'Connor (312) 821-9026
Robert Herguth (312) 821-9030

CHICAGO—The Better Government Association's ongoing commitment to ensuring that public records are publicly accessible has prompted a new transparency lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against Schiller Park School District 81. The suit alleges the district "willfully and intentionally" failed to comply with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, when the BGA requested copies of any confidentiality agreements in possession of the suburban district.

"FOIA is a central tool for watchdogs and the public to find out how local government is operating – and public agencies can't just disregard the statute on a whim," said BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw. "School districts and other public bodies need to remember who they work for – the taxpayers. District 81's behavior makes us wonder whether their leaders understand this."

Some background: Starting last year, the BGA filed FOIA requests with all of the nearly 150 school districts in Cook County, asking for five things: Collective bargaining agreements, administrator contracts, budgets, payroll data and any confidentiality agreements the district had adopted from 2011-2013. (Much of that information has been coalesced into a BGA database now available at this link: http://www.bettergov.org/resources/cook_county_schools_database.aspx.)

While some districts didn't have any confidentiality agreements, Schiller Park 81 was the only district in Cook County that acknowledged having at least one and then refused to turn over the relevant documents.

It's unclear which documents the district is holding back, but typically confidentiality agreements include separation agreements with employees that involve payouts, and lawsuit settlements. These types of agreements are clearly subject to FOIA, and in many cases, actually contain a clause acknowledging this.

"It is a fundamental obligation of government to operate openly and provide public records as quickly and easily as possible," said Matt Topic, a FOIA and intellectual property attorney at Loevy & Loevy who represents the BGA in the lawsuit. "Records can only be withheld in very limited circumstances, none of which apply to these agreements."

Prior to filing suit, the BGA gave District 81 several chances to release the documents. Each time, the district refused.

"It's time for Schiller Park 81 to step up and comply with FOIA. It's a taxpayer-funded district, and its taxpayers deserve to see these documents," Shaw said.

For more on the BGA's legal actions, visit this link:

http://www.bettergov.org/investigations/bga_legal_action.aspx

The Better Government Association is a Chicago-based nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group that works for integrity, transparency and accountability in government by exposing corruption and inefficiency; identifying and advocating effective public policy; and engaging and mobilizing the public to achieve authentic and responsible reform.