The Illinois Supreme Court has affirmed lower court rulings that a Springfield school board was not required to publicly go into detail about a superintendent’s separation agreement and ensure the public understood the agreement – as the Illinois Attorney General asserted – but rather it was sufficient for the board to summarize the nature of the agreement to the public.

Illinois Supreme Court justices
Illinois Supreme Court justices

The Jan. 20 judgment was delivered by Justice Rita Garman, with concurrence from Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices Charles Freeman, Robert Thomas, Anne Burke, Mary Jane Theis and Thomas Kilbride. 

The decision favored the Springfield School District No. 86 Board of Education in its dispute with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, over the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

The case stems from Feb. 4, 2013, when six of seven board members, during closed session, signed a separation agreement with the then-superintendent of schools. The next board meeting was scheduled for the following March 5. Several days before that meeting, the board posted the agenda online, listing the agreement as an action item, with a link to the agreement itself.

At the March 5 meeting, the board voted 6-1 in open session to approve the agreement, without discussing the agreement’s details. A reporter for Springfield’s State Journal-Register asked the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to investigate whether the board violated the Open Meetings Act.

In April 2014, the attorney general issued a binding opinion the board breached the Act by not disclosing “key terms” of the separation agreement, such as the fact the agreement called for the outgoing superintendent to receive a “substantial lump sum payment of public funds.” The attorney general said it was not enough the board posted the agreement online, but rather, the agreement’s details had to be “recited” verbally at the board’s public meeting, which was not done.

As a result, the attorney general held the separation agreement was not valid. 

The board took the matter to circuit court, where the court reversed the attorney general’s ruling. The attorney general then went to appellate court, where that body upheld the circuit court. The attorney general next journeyed to the state high court, but lost again. 

Justice Garman found the issue boiled down to whether the board was required to verbally go over the agreement at a public meeting and make sure the significance of the agreement was understood by those members of the public attending the meeting.

Garman agreed with the attorney general that simply posting the agreement was not sufficient, but beyond that, disagreed, saying the contract’s fine points did not need to be particularized and an explanation of the contract’s significance, and assurance the public understood that significance, were not required. 

Garman found the board had to state the essence or character of the agreement – as it did at the meeting – but to recite the “key terms” of the agreement, as the attorney general would have it, would be “time consuming and impractical.” 

“It was not necessary for the board president to publicly read the 16 pages of the agreement and its several addenda or to enumerate ‘key points’ of the agreement, which was one of 17 separate ‘Roll Call Action Items’ on the agenda,” Garman observed. 

The State Journal-Register has been represented by the Chicago firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson. The Springfield school board has been represented by the Springfield firm of Brown, Hay & Stephens.

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Brown, Hay and Stephens, LLP Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP Illinois Supreme Court

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