SPRINGFIELD, Ill. • Newly ousted members of the East St. Louis School Board might seek a court injunction to save their seats "before the ink is dry" on the state's decision to remove them, one of the board members predicted Thursday.
"They're not going to go away just because eight people in Springfield voted to remove them," said Carl Officer, one of the ousted board members. "You think (School Board President) Lonzo Greenwood and the School Board attorney are going to let these guys come in and take their sandbox?"
The possibility of a court fight is one of several unknowns going into the first-ever removal of a local school board by Illinois state education officials.
The Illinois State Board of Education made the decision with a unanimous vote Thursday, citing generations of academic failure and a culture of resistance toward fixing it on the part of the local board.
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"It can't go on," said state board member Vinni Hall, reflecting the frustration voiced by several state board members before the 8-0 vote. "We've had generations and decades of children who are affected. Somebody's got to do something."
The measure passed by the state board mandates State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch to direct St. Clair County Regional Superintendent Susan Sarfaty to remove the East St. Louis board members.
Koch then will appoint five people to an "Independent Authority" that will "exercise the powers and duties necessary to operate the district, improve school performance and student achievement," according to a statement by the state board.
Sarfaty, the regional superintendent, attended the state board meeting Thursday but said later in the afternoon that she had not had any official communication with Koch regarding the process of removing the board or details on when it would occur.
The state's action follows years of poor academic performance. The district has failed to meet standards under the federal No Child Left Behind law for the last nine years. In 2010-11, less than 10 percent of 11th-graders in East St. Louis schools taking the state's Prairie State Achievement Exam has passing scores in reading, math and science. Just 30 percent of its fourth-graders passed all state tests, compared with 63 percent statewide.
While academics is the issue that allows the state takeover under law, Koch and other critics also have referenced fiscal and ethics issues which, they have said, play into the district's academic failures.
Fiscally, the board was healthy eight years ago, amassing more than $40 million in surplus under a state financial oversight panel that had been in place for nearly a decade. But after the oversight panel was dissolved in 2004, the surplus dissolved, too. Today, the district is grappling with a $12 million deficit.
State officials have also made an issue of what they say was board members' lack of cooperation regarding district contracts — some of which carried hints of nepotism and cronyism. In one instance, the board's president arranged district contracts for his daughter and the daughter and brother of another board member. The board also insisted for a time on keeping a lease on an unneeded facility that costs the district more than a quarter-million dollars a year in utilities, according to Koch.
"We have spent a lot of time in this district ... to address issues of compliance, of finance, of academic improvement," Koch told the state board before Thursday's vote. Removing the local board members, he said, "is absolutely necessary in order to bring this district forward."
Officer, one of seven local board members removed by Thursday's vote, often votes differently from the rest of the School Board. Still, he said the state board was wrong to remove the School Board — and especially him.
"No one's charged me with anything that remotely resembles any rational reason to remove me from the board, but yet they chose to do so," Officer said. "You're going to tax me and have some people come in ... who are not elected?"
Neither board attorney Garrett Hoerner nor any of the other board members could be reached for comment Thursday.
The specter of the state swooping in and removing an elected School Board is something unseen in Illinois before Thursday — and then it was seen twice in an hour. Immediately after the 8-0 vote removing the East St. Louis board, the state board members voted 8-0 to remove local school board members of North Chicago District No. 187, citing similar issues.
During testimony before the state board earlier this week, Ed Geppert, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, urged caution in both proposed state takeovers. "A locally elected school board is a hallmark of public education," he said.
State Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, whose district includes East St. Louis, expressed similar reservations about the state board's actions Thursday. "We have to be cautious when we begin removing elected officials from office," he said.
Clayborne has been critical of some of the state's actions in East St. Louis, particularly the pressure put on local board members to raise property taxes in the district. He reiterated that criticism Thursday. "They raised taxes on the poorest citizens," he said.
But he also noted that in doing that, the local board was cooperating with the state — the very kind of cooperation the state has claimed was lacking.
"I'm not defending the board. The board could have made much better decisions," said Clayborne. "But they entered into an agreement, and they do pretty much what you tell them to do, and then you get rid of them?"
Jessica Bock of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.