Morton, IL School Board 709 suppresses public comments and more

MORTON,IL -- The Peoria suburban town of Morton is said to be dominated by right wing Christian groups, which apparently have control  of the Morton District 709 public school board.  

On January 16 after the board meeting had opened, the board allowed a lengthy prayer by a Christian minister ("Father" and blah, blah, blah).  Some courts have ruled prayers at school functions unconstitutional.

Then a board member clashed with activist Heather McMeekan who had signed up to present a comment to the board.

The Open Meetings Act in Illinois requires governmental bodies to allow public comments.

McMeekan, president of the Peoria  chapter of the National Organization for Women,  complained about the prayer. Then she accused a board member of lying about her in public and demanded an apology. It didn't arrive.

Instead he interrupted her several times, and claimed she was out of order because the comment period was limited to remarks on the agenda. However that pending new policy of limiting the comments at the first of the meetings to agenda items  had not yet been approved by the board.

The board then heard from a parent who accused school officials of failing to protect his son from harassment and bullying because he is gay and liberal.  He was not interrupted, even though he called for resignations of these officials by name.

That little bit of white male privilege, to speak without interruption, did not go unnoticed.

I presented the board with my comments, which explain what the board wanted and adopted:

'To the Morton District 709 School Board:

Hello. I am Elaine Hopkins. Although I live in Peoria, IL., as a taxpayer in the state and federal governments, I am concerned about the education of all students.

Therefore  when I heard about your plan to restrict public comments at public meetings I was concerned. This plan to accept public comments only on the agenda at the beginning of the meetings, and allow other comments only at the end of the meetings is actually a way to discourage and stifle the comments.  

This plan restricts comments for both sessions, as some people, likely parents, cannot stay until the end.  Others may be concerned but have no time or way to study the agenda.

The obvious reason for the adoption of this plan is to discourage comments. Why would you do that?  As elected officials you should want to know what the public thinks about the way the district is being run. You also should hear and welcome  criticism which may open your eyes to problems.  

You need to hear these comments to improve the district.  You should not be trying to discourage them.

I hope you will reject the policy change on tonight’s agenda and show that you welcome all comments conveniently at the beginning of the meetings, in the spirit of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.  Some may help you become a better board member and elected official.'

The board then approved the policy, effective immediately.

This policy, of restricting early comments to items on the agenda, brings up an  interesting issue -- how to enforce the policy.  What, exactly, would a comment on the agenda mean? 

For example on the Jan. 16 agenda a high school AP biology textbook was listed for discussion. So does that open the door to a comment on sexual harassment or LGBTQ+ issues and failure of school officials to stop bullying of students?

Could a comment like that cause the person to be kicked out of the meeting, perhaps permanently? That can likely be appealed to the courts.The board recently expelled a parent for comments, with this matter apparently still pending.

At the end of the meeting a Morton resident made a late comment, accusing the board of a questionable property issue with a $1.2 million loss for the district.

Here's a link to the link to the meeting:

And this is a board that ignored comments about a lack of adequate facilities for its female athletes, a Title 9 violation of the law.  They are now fixing this after enforcement of the law.

 -- Elaine Hopkins

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