Center for Open Government sues for access to Hinsdale Township School District 86 special education documents

Lawsuit seeks to resolve a year-long impasse over access to information

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Center for Open Government at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law has filed a lawsuit in DuPage County Circuit Court against Hinsdale Township School District 86 superintendent Nicholas Wahl and school board president Dennis Brennan on behalf of school board member Dianne Barrett. The lawsuit comes one year after Barrett requested documents related to the district's Special Education Department (SED).

In July of 2009, Barrett asked for documents related to complaints made against the SED, which ranged from informal in nature to those arising out of more formal "due process" hearings which are held in accordance with state law. Barrett is seeking access to the data in an effort to verify state board of education statistics that SED has more complaints per capita than any other Illinois district. District 86 allegedly has high numbers of outplaced students and, over the years, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend complaints against SED. While the information requested is not available to the general public, Barrett said her role as a member of the board responsible for providing state-mandated services entitles her to review the documents.

"This case focuses on two important problem areas we want to eliminate in Illinois," said attorney Clint Krislov, founder of the Center for Open Government. "First, for 'public access' to be meaningful, the extraordinary time it takes to get access to public documents must be drastically shortened. Second, we want to establish that all members of Illinois governing bodies, boards or boards of education are, by their offices, entitled to full access to the public records of the bodies on which they serve."

Barrett, who was reluctant to go to court to resolve the dispute over the documents, called the lawsuit "a last resort." Numerous requests to Superintendent Wahl for the documents were unsuccessful. Wall and board president Brennan finally responded—almost a year later—to Barrett's request when, on June 4, 2010, they provided a limited number of substantially redacted documents.

"What options do I have except to sue or abandon my attempts to find out what they do not want anyone to know?" she added.

"We are highly sensitive to the concerns of District 86 taxpayers—a major reason for seeking these documents—and are making every effort to minimize the costs of resolving this dispute," said Terrance A. Norton, director of the Center for Open Government at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law which filed the lawsuit on Barrett's behalf.

Norton emphasized that, aside from Brennan, no individual board members have been named in the lawsuit and that Barrett is not seeking monetary damages. He added that expenses on both sides can be kept low by focusing on the legal issues involved.

Chicago-Kent College of Law is the law school of Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), a private, Ph.D.-granting institution. Chicago-Kent established the Center for Open Government in 2009 to help ensure transparency, accountability and responsibility in local and state government. The Center identifies instances where legal recourse is needed to provide access to government information and proceedings. The Center focuses on cases challenging closed government processes under the Illinois Open Meetings Act, the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and similar statutes.