D86 audience members' comments cut short
Officials stop public comment, citing board policy that prohibits attacks on employees
Last updated 12/18/2019 at 4:23pm | View PDF
A group of Hinsdale High School District 86 residents said their Constitutional rights were violated when they were not allowed to speak during the district’s board meeting Dec. 12.
The controversy arose during audience communication when Meeta Patel, a Community Consolidated Elementary District 181 board member, started to read a letter sent to the full board by Hinsdale resident Dan Levinthal that referenced Carol Baker, the district’s assistant superintendent for academics. Board President Nancy Pollak interrupted Patel at the mention of Baker’s name.
“We’re not going to — I’m sorry,” Pollak said, pounding the gavel. “No.”
“This is a violation of First Amendment rights,” Patel said. “The board of education policy only limits time, place and manner but not content, unless it’s a threat, which this letter is not.”
A district employee then removed the microphone from the podium.
Two more parents tried to continue reading the letter but were interrupted by Pollak, who said the comments were inappropriate.
“We are not having this conversation in public about individual people,” she said. “I apologize.”
In a statement Friday, the district said several individuals, including some who signed up to speak at the meeting, have attacked a district employee with respect to a personal matter via social media posts and communications.
“When they began to reference content about the employee from those communications, board President Pollak exercised her authority in accordance with Policy 2:230 to halt public comment that was deemed as lacking ‘respect and civility toward others,’ ” wrote Chris Jasculca, communications director.
“There were several comments in the letter that we deemed to be personal, including those that editorialized the decisions that our staff member made regarding the education of her own children,” Jasculca wrote when asked to identify the personal attacks. “This letter is just one of a number of recent social media posts that feature attacks of a personal nature against this employee.”
The microphone later was returned to the podium and public comment continued. Next in line was resident Debbie Levinthal, wife of the letter writer. She did not attempt to read the letter but voiced her objections about the district’s new science sequence plan led by Baker, which has come under criticism.
“I remain deeply concerned as a former high school math teacher that the plan in place to go to a single strand PCB trajectory in the fall of ’21 is not the right path for the district,” she said, asking the board to postpone the change.
The board also heard from other parents with concerns about the science sequence, including resident Yvonne Mayer, who read from a May 19, 2017, Chicago Tribune article quoting Baker, who was then superintendent of Lyons Elementary District 103. In the article, Baker, previously curriculum director for science in Oak Lawn High School District 218, argued that eliminating general level science classes could water down the curriculum. The new District 86 science sequence offers only regular and honors levels of physics and chemistry to freshmen and sophomores.
“You have relied on her expertise to push this program through,” Mayer said. “So I am asking you to ask your chief academic officer to explain her contradictions.”
Administrators cited two board policies in discussing the decision to discontinue public comment. In addition to board policy 2.230, they pointed to policy 8.30, which addresses visitors to and conduct on school property.
“The school district expects mutual respect, civility and orderly conduct among all individuals on school property,” the latter reads. It also states a person shall not “injure, threaten, harass or intimidate a staff member, a board of education member ... or any other person.”
Patel said she doesn’t see anything in the policy that should have prevented her or other residents from sharing concerns in a public forum.
“The comments that were in that letter were not a personal attack and they were not pertaining to a personnel matter,” Patel told The Hinsdalean Monday. “Even if they were, quite frankly, I don’t think that the board policy on public comment actually excludes that.”
Patel would not indicate if she or the other residents are pursuing legal action against the district.
“We’ve been advised by counsel not to comment on that matter,” she said.