MAHOMET — In a contentious, more than four-hour meeting Monday, the Mahomet-Seymour board of education juggled a pair of hot topics: accusations that past boards violated the law and, separately, that one newer member benefited personally from nonprofit activity on behalf of the school’s students.
The board is accused of numerous violations of the Open Meetings Act over a period of two years by one of its own current members, but the Illinois attorney general’s office declined to review the case, opting instead to offer advice to the board on following the OMA.
That same board member has been accused by two Mahomet community members, who spoke to the school board Monday, of “unethical” actions related to the M-S PTO’s Dawg Walk fundraiser.
“We’ve got so much dysfunction,” clearly frustrated board member Jeremy Henrichs said at one point.
In April, a trio of new candidates was elected to the board: Meghan Hennesy, Ken Keefe and Colleen Schultz. All three ran on platforms promising more transparency from the district’s governing body.
A clear split between the new members and longer-serving members of the board was visible Monday during several discussions. Henrichs was re-elected to the board in the spring, while Max McComb, Lori Larson and Merle Giles were not on the ballot this time around. Each has served multiple years on the school board.
The OMA topic was intermingled at times throughout discussions at the regularly scheduled board meeting Monday.
In comments from individual board members, board President McComb announced that the OMA complaint had been filed against the board, and the district learned this when it received a decision, declining to review the case, from the state attorney general’s office on Aug. 13.
“It turns out that the complaint was filed way back on June 17, 2019, and accused the board of literally dozens of Open Meetings violations, going back more than two years,” McComb said in written statements. “We never knew that anything had been filed.”
He expressed displeasure that it was a board member who filed the complaint.
“But what surprises me, and really disappoints me, is that this complaint was filed by Mr. Keefe, and that Mr. Keefe never made any effort to discuss any of these issues about filing the complaint with anyone here at the district, never even shared with the entire board or the superintendent that he was planning to file this complaint,” McComb said. “And the complaint is 15 pages long, and in the very first sentence of the complaint he identifies himself as a member of this board, and the complaint lists out dozens of allegations, broken out into multiple sections, with time-stamps from board meeting tapes all the way through.
“In other words, Mr. Keefe put a lot, lot, lot of time into this complaint, which he filed after he had joined the board, and he even invoked his status as a board member when he filed his complaint,” McComb continued. “And he is entitled to do all of those things. And honestly, if Mr. Keefe or anyone else has concerns, I hope that you raise those concerns. But what disappoints me is that Mr. Keefe did it all in complete secrecy. There was no transparency from Mr. Keefe, no openness from Mr. Keefe, no attempt by Mr. Keefe to let us know he had filed this complaint. And that is really disappointing as we attempt to establish positive relationships and work together.”
The complaint with the attorney general’s response and McComb’s response are posted on the Mahomet-Seymour school district’s website under “documents,” “board of education information” and “OMA complaint to attorney general.”
“We will post Mr. Keefe’s complaint and the attorney general’s denial on our website. It’s unfortunate that all of this originally happened in secret, but now that we know about it, it’s important to be completely transparent about it,” McComb stated.
Keefe said he has reviewed hours upon hours of closed-session recordings from board meetings that occurred before he was elected. He could not access those recordings until he joined the board.
“I found many violations of the Open Meetings Act, and I take that very seriously for this board, and really any public body,” Keefe said. “It’s an essential law to make sure that our democracy is working effectively. Without clear information, our democracy won’t work.
“To be clear, a violation of the Open Meetings Act is a Class C misdemeanor. It is breaking the law. I don’t know what you all would do — I don’t know what you fellow board members would do — if you saw a law being broken. My response would not be to have a conversation with that person breaking the law and especially if you’ve seen it over the course of two years with no real remorse that that has happened,” Keefe said. “My response wouldn’t be to talk to them quietly behind the scenes. My approach would be to report it to the authorities and let the authorities weigh in on it and take care of it.
“And that’s also what the attorney general’s office suggests when people encounter Open Meetings Act violations,” he said. “And so that’s what I did. I sent a request for review that stated 78 violations that have occurred from April 12, 2017, to April 15, 2019, and the public access counselor’s office has responded that while these allegations may be violations of the Open Meetings Act, if they’re found to be factual — and that remains to be seen, whether or not they’re factual — and they made suggestions of what ... actions the district should take if those allegations are factual.
“However, the office decided to decline to review the allegations at this time,” Keefe said. The public access counselor (PAC) office told him they are “not making a determination as to whether or not they can review these allegations, however her office is deciding that they do not want to commit the resources necessary to review these allegations,” he added.
Keefe suggested that the board set a special session to go over the alleged OMA violations.
“As I see it, the only real way that these allegations are going to be considered and hopefully resolved so that we can move forward is if the board’s going to do it themselves,” he said.
No such meeting was agreed upon Monday. In discussion later in the evening, McComb and other longer-serving board members spoke of leaving the past OMA allegations behind and looking ahead.
“Quite frankly, I’m about moving forward,” McComb said. “I’m tired of ‘gotcha.’ I think what our job now is to police ourselves going forward.”
Board Secretary Giles said, “I think we can do better. We’ve pledged to do better. We must. And I don’t think there’s any way to go back and rehash it all.”
Hennesy sided with Keefe on the overall OMA issue.
“In all fairness, I think the process needs to be understood by people as to why Ken might have taken the path that he did,” she said. “As a new board member, you come on board, there are lots of things you can do in the onboarding process. One of those things is to sit and listen to closed-session tapes. So the three new board members did go in and listen to closed-session tapes for the purposes of getting up to speed on topics that had taken place, discussions that had taken place. There are things that are allowed for closed-session topics. There are very specific reasons that you can go into closed session.
“If you discuss anything else in those closed-session tapes, you are doing it illegally,” Hennesy said. “I concur with Ken. When I listened to hours upon hours — I’m going to guess I listened to 100 hours of closed-session tapes — there were numerous instances of discussions that took place that are not appropriate or approved for closed session. Anywhere from figuring out how you’re going to block new board members from having any voices, having any impact ... imagine that you were a new board member elected by the public and you in your research and time and effort to get up to speed as to coming onto the board heard that there were active plans to subvert your vote and make sure that you would not get to add things to agendas, if the numbers weren’t right people wouldn’t show up so votes couldn’t be taken ... that this might be concerning to you. Those were some of the things that were on the closed-session tapes.”
Schultz later said it’s clear the board has work to do to come together.
“I can agree with Max that we need to have some kind of discussions; we need to figure this out,” Schultz said. “We need to come to some understanding and we need to do it in a legal fashion. We need to figure out how we’ll follow rules and we’re not going to decide (to follow some rules and not others).
“It is when you agree with the outcome that you should challenge the process,” she added. “We need to agree on what we are going to do and we need to follow it.”
Keefe accused of benefiting from PTO effort
Early in the meeting, when visitors addressed the school board directly, two women brought up allegations that Keefe used credit cards to make purchases on behalf of the Mahomet-Seymour PTO for its annual Dawg Walk fundraiser, was reimbursed by the PTO, but gained airline miles and cash back due to putting the purchases on his personal credit cards.
Former Mahomet-Seymour teacher Sunny McMurry, also a parent to three children in the school district and a volunteer for efforts to aid students, prefaced her remarks by asking the board about its policy relating to district clubs and parent-teacher organizations. She referenced the Dawg Walk and its budget and net funds raised.
“Why did the PTO pay over $26,000 to one specific person who was named the Dawg Walk chair?” McMurry asked, referring to Keefe, who is listed as “corresponding executive” for the PTO overall on its website. “The answer I was given during a phone call with the current board president, Ashley Webber, was that it was just easier for last year’s president to have this person buy everything and reimburse him even though the PTO had other options.”
She said IRS guidelines for non-profit, 501(c)(3) groups state that actions that could cause an organization to lose its non-profit status include private benefit.
“My goal at this point is to turn this issue over to you so PTO can start their fundraising season on a positive note with honest and transparent (fundraising) and no skeletons in the closet,” McMurry told the school board.
The second member of the public to address the issue, Lisa Frerichs, also a volunteer for efforts supporting Mahomet-Seymour schools, said she wanted to speak regarding “a discovery I have made that shows unethical behavior and possible future intentional behavior from Keefe.
“I’m here to ask for Ken’s resignation from the school board due to his unethical behavior during his time running the PTO’s largest fundraiser,” Frerichs said. “Ken used his personal credit cards to (purchase) over an estimated $26,000-plus for ‘Dawg Walk expenses’ according to the financial ledger created by the (PTO) treasurer. The treasurer report lacks detail so we have no idea exactly what was purchased.”
Frerichs expressed frustration that she and McMurry have not been able to get more detailed answers to their questions, or reciepts, on the matter from the PTO, she alleged.
“At a previous PTO meeting I attended, Ken did admit he gained personal benefits from using his personal credit card, through miles and cashback incentives,” Frerichs said. “I asked him specifically what he received, but he could not answer the question. I also asked if he thought benefiting personally by gaining miles and cash back for purchases of $26,000-plus was ethical, and he replied, ‘Yes.’ I also asked if he would do it again, and he said, ‘Yes.’”
Following visitor remarks at the Monday meeting, Hennesy and Schultz both noted that the PTO is not under the school district’s umbrella when it comes to management.
“The PTO is not our jurisdiction,” Schultz said.
In response to the allegations, Keefe called the situation “a farce.”
“Miss McMurry, Miss Frerichs, I’m disappointed to see that you’re continuing this witch hunt that started with social media attacks months ago,” he said. “You’ve brought these concerns to the PTO. You are continuing to harass the PTO board via email. The PTO had a public board meeting where you had an opportunity to come and address your concerns. When the PTO responded and stated that they’ve looked into these issues, and they are content with the way things were done ...
“I’m really disappointed that you guys are continuing this. It’s been made clear to the public that this is a farce,” Keefe said. “I strongly encourage you to re-evaluate the people, the person, that has set you onto this trail. Think about what it is they are encouraging you to do and what their goals may be. It’s disappointing that you’re being used to harm the PTO, to try and harm me, and that individual is remaining untouched.”
On Tuesday, Keefe declined to name the person to whom he was referring.
McMurry and Frerichs responded from the audience Monday that they have pursued information on the PTO reimbursements to Keefe on their own.
“I don’t believe anything that was done with the PTO was unethical,” Keefe said. “... it’s pretty sad the way you’re harming the community.”
The PTO issued a statement late Tuesday on the matter: “The M-S PTO Board stands by their mission of parents and teachers building strong schools together. We continue to be dedicated to working together to serve teachers, students and families in our two elementary schools: Middletown Prairie (pre-K-2) and Lincoln Trail (3-5). Our board is made up of all parent volunteers, and we would love to have input and involvement from anyone who is interested in continuing our mission. We are always willing to accept suggestions and / or questions regarding any of our many school programs or our annual Dawg Walk Fundraiser. The M-S PTO has several open meetings scheduled in 2019 (and 2020): Thursday, Sept 12: 6 p.m.; Thursday, Oct 10: 6 p.m.; Thursday, Jan. 9: 6 p.m.; Thursday, March 5: 6 p.m.; Thursday, April 9: 6 p.m. We will meet in the Middletown Elementary Prairie Conference Room. We hope that anyone with questions or concerns that cannot attend a meeting will email email@example.com. We do have openings on our board, and we look forward to parents and teachers working together to make our schools the best they can be!”
The statement was issued by PTO President Webber.
Later in the Monday’s meeting, Henrichs showed anger when it came to his turn to address both the OMA and PTO issues.
“I don’t even know where to start,” he said. “I’m supposed to presume Ken’s innocence, but we can’t presume the previous board’s innocence? Now I’m telling you this is nuts. There isn’t anybody who was violating Open Meetings Act purposefully. There was no intent. I was present for the past year.
“So we’re coming in with presumptions someone’s guilty, questioning their honor, and you do something like THAT,” Henrichs added, referring to the way Keefe handled the OMA complaints. “And then we’re supposed to presume you’re innocent. Fine. I don’t know if you’re innocent or not. But don’t come in here and tell me I’m a liar. I mean it’s ridiculous. I can’t understand — I’ve never been on a board like this before. I mean, I don’t know how anybody can keep their composure up here. It just drives me bananas.
“Let’s just get on with business. That’s it,” he said.