D86 Board, Pollak hit with lawsuit
Last updated 2/13/2020 at 1:41am | View PDF
The Hinsdale High School District 86 Board and board President Nancy Pollak are the targets of a lawsuit brought by district residents last week alleging both their First Amendment rights and the Illinois Open Meetings Act were violated when they were prevented from reading a letter at December board meeting.
In their complaint filed in the U.S. District Court — Northern District of Illinois, plaintiffs Meeta Jain Patel, Kara Kuo and Kim Notaro state that the board and Pollak were wrong to invoke the “respect and civility clause” of its public comment policy when they attempted to read a letter at the Dec. 12 meeting referencing comments made by Carol Baker, assistant superintendent for academics, at her home district’s board meeting regarding plans to cut course offerings in the district.
The letter, which had been emailed to the board, was being employed by critics of Baker and other District 86 officials who planned to change the district’s science curriculum.
Pollak objected to Patel’s attempt to read it, and a district employee removed the microphone from the podium. Two more parents tried to continue read the letter but were stopped by Pollak, who said the comments were inappropriate. Patel, in a press release through the plaintiffs’ law firm Loevy & Loevy, said the board’s action was wrong.
“Publicly elected boards of education are tasked with representing the interests of the community,” said Patel, who serves on the Community Consolidated Elementary District 181 Board. “To effectively do so they need to welcome comments, both complimentary and critical. That is the bedrock of democratic, public school board governance.
“Ms. Kuo, Ms. Notaro and I are not afraid to speak out when we see policies and actions that threaten the integrity of school board governance. It is for this reason that we have filed this lawsuit.”
In a statement to the press after the Dec. 12 meeting, the district defended Pollak’s action.
“When (the speakers) 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,’ ” stated Chris Jasculca, communications director.
Asked by The Hinsdalean to identify the objectionable portions, Jasculca responded:
“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,” he remarked via email. “This letter is just one of a number of recent social media posts that feature attacks of a personal nature against this employee.”
A few days after the meeting, Patel expressed her surprise at being cut off to The Hinsdalean.
“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. “Even if they were, quite frankly, I don’t think that the board policy on public comment actually excludes that.”
Plaintiff attorney Matt Topic said that the vague policy promoting “civility” should not trump free speech.
“Our nation was founded on the ideal that the public has a right to address its concerns to its government officials, and the board of Hinsdale Township High School District 86 has no Constitutional basis to tell its constituents that they can’t raise their criticisms and concerns at a public meeting,” Topic said in the press release.
Asked for a response to the lawsuit, Jasculca said the district had no comment.
An initial status hearing in the case is scheduled for April 15.