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School board ordered to release settlement records

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School board ordered to release settlement records

  • A circuit court judge in Illinois said a settlement agreement between the Dolton Elementary School District and its former superintendent, Doris Hope-Jackson, must be released to the public because it is not a personnel record.

Feb. 4, 2004 — A circuit court judge in Calumet City, Ill., ruled last week that a Chicago-area school district must publicly release the terms of its settlement agreement with former Superintendent Doris Hope-Jackson.

Judge Deborah Mary Dooling held Jan. 28 that the agreement “does not constitute a ‘personnel file’ nor does it contain ‘personal information’ ” about Hope-Jackson. Dooling further ruled that the disclosure of the settlement agreement would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy because the terms of the settlement concern “public duties and public monies.”

Illinois’s Freedom of Information law specifically states that information about the public duties of public employees is not considered an invasion of personal privacy.

The Times, a daily newspaper serving the greater Chicago area and northwest Indiana, filed suit against the Dolton Elementary School District 149 in October, following repeated FOI Act requests for a copy of the settlement agreement.

According to court records, Hope-Jackson sued the school board early last year, claiming her contractual and constitutional rights were violated when she was suspended and placed on paid administrative leave by the school board after a mid-year performance evaluation last February.

School officials declined to disclose why Hope-Jackson was placed on leave, the Times reported.

Hope-Jackson, who was in the first year of a three-year contract, alleged that the board’s action against her was retribution for her refusal to do political favors for certain board members. The Times also reported that Hope-Jackson sent a letter to the Illinois Association of School Boards claiming her job was threatened because she refused to be a “junior deal maker.” The letter mentioned such “deals” as a promotion for a district office employee and a change in the district’s food service provider.

Hope-Jackson’s lawsuit was settled in April.

The school district had argued in court that the settlement agreement, which included a confidentiality clause, was exempt from disclosure under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Eric Dorkin and Chuck Tobin, attorneys for the Times, said Judge Dooling got it right in ruling otherwise.

“When a public body settles a highly public dispute with a public official in a public forum, that settlement has to be a public document,” Tobin, who is based in Washington, D.C., said.

The Times reported in November that it obtained a copy of a July 1 letter from Hope-Jackson’s attorney, Robert Ellch, to former District 149 attorney Burt Odelson. The letter explained that Hope-Jackson was still waiting to receive the title to a 2003 Mercedes-Benz and a $50,000 term life insurance policy, per the settlement agreement.

(Lee Publications, Inc. v. Dolton School District #149; Media Counsel: Eric Dorkin, Holland & Knight, Chicago) MG

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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