Former school board candidate Josh Gordon reviews materials from his complaint before the Libertyville School District 70 ethics commission during its May 31 meeting. (Rick Kambic/Pioneer Press)
A candidate who unsuccessfully ran for a spot on the Libertyville School District 70 Board of Education has filed ethics complaints with the district accusing the school board president, superintendent and teachers union president of breaking school board prohibitions against political activities and using district email accounts for political activities.
A newly formed three-person ethics commission is scheduled to reconvene on June 20 following an initial May 31 session. The formation of the commission came after Libertyville resident Josh Gordon filed a complaint on April 21 to Superintendent Guy Schumacher and followed up with an addendum on May 16 to Chris Kennedy, a school board and, now, ethics commission member.
The complaints accused district employees of sending out election-related material on work time and using district-provided email accounts. Gordon also said district officials planned to allow election-related meetings to take place on school property and used a Facebook post to promote a board candidate.
"The job of every citizen is to hold our public officials accountable to following the rules," Gordon said. "State law allows for an ethics commission to determine if that happened."
Four school board seats were up in the April election and Gordon came in fifth out of eight candidates, according to election results.
Named to the ethics commission were Kennedy, an insurance lawyer who was not up for reelection this past cycle; former longtime school board member Laura Beltchenko, a retired teacher and administrator, and Don Morrison, a district resident and former prosecutor.
District policy makes the superintendent responsible for creating the commission. Morrison said Schumacher assembled the group.
Both Schumacher and School Board President Tom Vickers said they recused themselves from involvement in the commission’s work because they were mentioned in the complaint. They said Kennedy was the next ranking school board member willing to accept the task.
Kennedy said he contacted the district’s attorney, Robert Kohn, who told him that he was unaware of any previous instances in which an ethics commission was assembled, and had no point of reference on how the group should function.
Morrison, who was voted chairman of the commission, initially declined to provide Pioneer Press with a copy of the complaint, saying some of the people mentioned are district employees with privacy rights.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, District 70 later provided a copy of Gordon’s original letter and his emailed complaint addendum, which was later added to the items considered by the commission.
In their first meeting, commission members discussed procedures and decided to review details of the complaint privately on their own, to save time. They expressed caution about consulting each other outside of a meeting because two members talking would constitute a quorum and violate the Open Meetings Act.
Gordon says in his complaint that teachers union president Cheryl Crenshaw, a first-grade teacher at Rockland School, used school resources to organize and conduct candidate interview sessions for the union’s endorsement.
Gordon’s complaint says Crenshaw sent emails on a district-provided account during the workday, and said she planned to use Rockland School for the union’s candidate interviews. Gordon said school policies and state laws prohibit the use of school property and time for campaigning.
One email acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request shows Crenshaw asking Schumacher for permission to use her school email account to contact candidates and notified him of the union’s plan to meet at Rockland School. The email shows Schumacher granting Crenshaw permission to use her school email account, though he did not comment on the plan to hold the union meeting at Rockland.
Responding to Gordon’s allegations about the email being sent during work hours, Crenshaw said all teachers have "duty-free" periods throughout the day during which they’re allowed to conduct personal business.
Additionally, she said, the union has used district schools for interviews in the past without any problems. She said, though, that she moved the proceedings to the Cook Memorial Public Library when Schumacher received a complaint. Schumacher said he helped Crenshaw reserve space at the library in an effort to be responsive to the concern.
"We’re fortunate in this district to have amicable relationships with our counterparts," Crenshaw said. "That is not evidence of any collaboration or joint objective. The LEA does what’s in the best interest of its members."
The district’s policy states that, "No employee shall intentionally perform any prohibited political activity during any compensated time. No board member or employee shall intentionally use any property or resources of the district in connection with any prohibited political activity."
The policy’s 15-point definition of prohibited political activity includes "preparing or reviewing responses to candidate questionnaires" and "preparing for, organizing, or participating in any political meeting."
Gordon said that Vickers was aware of his concerns about the sessions but did not take action.
"(The emails) show a pattern of Dr. Schumacher inserting himself in the campaign and exerting influence over the election through use of district resources and in conjunction with the LEA (Libertyville Education Association), both of which are in direct violation of District 70 board policy," Gordon’s supplemental complaint reads.
When contacted by Pioneer Press, Vickers denied any wrongdoing and said Gordon’s actions reflect "sour grapes" about having lost the election.
"Assertions of collusion and of some big cabal here, those are very, very dangerous things to say," Vickers said. "I take great offense to it. I take offense to being called complacent. I caution anyone that’s going to start running around and making those sort of assertions."
When asked about Vickers’ comment, Gordon disagreed and said he was merely following up on matters that occurred before the election.
When asked about Gordon’s claims that he improperly corresponded with people who had questions about school board candidates, Schumacher disputed many of the allegations.
"I’m a prominent figure that people often contact for a lot of reasons," Schumacher said. "We don’t often have contested elections, so there were a lot of questions sent my way. I wish Josh (Gordon) would have talked to me about these things. I could have explained what happened."
Another accusation made by Gordon involves a Facebook post on the district’s page that pictured then-candidate, now-board-member Marc Grote at a March school board meeting while noting his appreciation for being part of the regional training for future school board members. Gordon’s complaint contends the post was used to "promote school board candidate Marc Grote."
Grote’s wife is a teacher in the district.
The post said Grote as well as incumbent candidates Tom Vickers and Wendy Schilling all attended the training, and then named the other candidates for school board.
That Facebook post is no longer online. Shortly after it was posted, the district published a post that said the district does not support or endorse any political candidates.
In an email acquired through a FOIA request, Schumacher responded on April 19 to concerns over the Facebook post and said it had been removed. He wrote that, "while, according to counsel, it did not suggest any violation, it seemed to be causing unnecessary disturbance."
When asked about the Facebook post, Vickers said the district account is very active and the post in question was likely part of an effort to provide information to community members but was maybe too rushed. He noted that all candidates were still identified and no one was left out.
Robin Kollman, the district’s public relations facilitator who frequently posts to the Facebook account and school websites, disagreed with Gordon’s assessment in an emailed statement when asked to respond to his concerns over the post.
"The social media post being questioned was both accurate and factual and in no way a political endorsement," Kollman told Pioneer Press in an email. "As a former reporter with more than 20 years of news experience, I believe the post also was objective and fair."
The commission plans to reconvene at 4 p.m. Tuesday, June 20 at the district office, 1381 W. Lake St., to determine whether additional investigation into the complaint is needed and to possibly schedule a hearing.