Transparency Issues in District 200: A Brief History
There's plenty of talk about being open, but the past is filled with controversy
Themes of transparency and accountability have been prominent in the April 5 school board election campaign, including in a local newspaper’s endorsements.
Though all candidates now say transparency is their goal, that hasn’t always been the case in District 200. Over the last couple years, the two biggest transparency issues have been former Superintendent Gary Catalini's contract controversy - in which I was personally involved - and the dismissal of Superintendent Richard Drury.
For those who haven’t followed these stories from the beginning, I thought a short refresher might be helpful.
In May 2009, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled, 7-0, that District 200 must disclose former Catalani’s employment contract to the public. Dr. Catalani had retired in 2007 with $380,000 in total compensation. He was then the highest paid school employee in Illinois.
The contract revealed he’d received three years of guaranteed 20-percent annual raises, a full school year’s worth of paid sick days, nine additional weeks of paid time off per year and district-paid health insurance with no deductibles through 2021.
District 200 spent over $62,000 in legal fees in three years of fighting my Freedom of Information Act requests seeking a copy of the contract. You can read the court’s opinion here.
I submitted my FOIA request in January 2006 because, in reviewing District 200 spending, I noticed Catalani’s compensation had jumped from $232,000 in 2004 to $306,000 in 2005 – a 32-percent increase in one year. Then it hit $380,000 in 2006.
District 200 denied the FOIA, contending that the contract was contained in Dr. Catalani’s personnel file, and under Illinois law personnel files are exempt from FOIA disclosure. The Illinois Attorney General disagreed, and wrote District 200 a letter advising them to disclose the contract.
Then, I learned that the Daily Herald had been given a copy of the contract in response to its own FOIA request. I submitted a second FOIA request, and the Attorney General sent a second letter telling the district to disclose the contract.
The District again refused. It later claimed in court filings the Daily Herald got its copy not from the District, but from Dr. Catalani personally, although the contract was faxed to the newspaper from Catalani’s district office. A Chicago Tribune reporter was also allowed to see a copy.
Ultimately, I sued District 200 in late 2006. I lost at the trial court level in 2007, but appealed. In the summer of 2008, the appellate court reversed the trial court and ruled against the district. The District appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Attorney General filed a legal brief in support of my position, and the Supreme Court agreed, establishing the principle that public employment contracts are public records.
No sooner had the Catalani matter been resolved than the focus shifted to Drury, Catalani’s successor as superintendent. On July 8, 2009, the school board unanimously extended Dr. Drury’s contract through 2012. But in September, the board abruptly dismissed Drury.
A settlement agreement confirmed Drury had engaged in no wrongdoing and stated he “resigned” because “differences arose” with the board in August 2009 - the month after the Board extended his contract.
However, to this day the board has never said what those differences were. Under the separation agreement, District 200 had to pay the equivalent of a year’s salary, over $220,000, to get rid of Drury. That was as required by his contract if he were terminated without good cause.
No announcement was made when Drury did not attend the Sept. 23, 2009, board meeting. Although eyewitness accounts confirmed Drury’s office had been cleaned out that week, and a flurry of special closed board meetings followed, the district continued to claim publicly that he was “on vacation.” Even administrators were kept in the dark
On Oct. 15, after the District had been effectively without a superintendent for nearly a month, the board announced Drury’s resignation and named former Wheaton-Warrenville South High School principal Charles Baker as interim superintendent.
Baker was nominally retired and collecting his pension, but had continued to work for the district as a part-time administrator for a salary of about $75,000 a year. He served until the end of the 2009-10 school year, when the board named Dr. Brian Harris its fourth superintendent in just over three year.
Perhaps wisely, Harris negotiated a contract that guarantees him his full salary for the duration of his three-year contract if he is fired without cause. He also got the board to agree he does not have to sell his current home in St. Charles to move into the District.