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D86 board president: Member’s lawsuit cost $50,000

Dianne Barrett of Clarendon Hills, stands outside the Hinsdale Township High School Central in Hinsdale, Wednesday, August 26, 2009. Barrett is a school board member at District 86.(Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune)

Dianne Barrett of Clarendon Hills, stands outside the Hinsdale Township High School Central in Hinsdale, Wednesday, August 26, 2009. Barrett is a school board member at District 86.(Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune)

In light of a judge’s ruling against school board member Dianne Barrett’s lawsuit over for access to documents, Hinsdale District 86 board President Dennis Brennan said she should pay the district’s $50,000 in legal fees related to the case.

In July 2010, Barrett filed a lawsuit against Brennan and Superintendent Nick Wahl, claiming she as a board member should have access to un-redacted board and district documents related to special education without limitation or having to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

DuPage County Judge Thomas Dudgeon ruled Nov. 18 that the Illinois School Student Records Act trumps Barrett’s request for documents, and her right of access is not unfettered. In the final order by Dudgeon, he states Barrett’s powers as a school board member do not grant her access to any district records she demands without restriction under the law.

At a school board meeting this week, Brennan announced the Barrett case had been decided, and cost the district more than $50,000 in legal fees.

“At the time we didn’t give Ms. Barrett the documents, we said we were right,” Brennan said. “We hope this is the end of litigation and wasteful spending… In my six-and-a-half years on the board, I’ve never seen any other board member waste $50,000 in one swoop.”

Barrett said she has not yet decided whether she’ll appeal the decision, and has 30 days to make up her mind. Barrett said her request for the documents was made with the interest of students in mind.

“There are so many special ed cases and a lot of unhappy parents in special ed,” Barrett said. “It’s in our best interest to find out what the problems were… I hope this board will have another discussion (on the topic).”

On the legal fees, Barrett said she believes the law firm, at times, charges more than appropriate.

While he called the lawsuit a “colossal waste of money,” board member Richard Skoda said he believes Barrett is constrained by statute and could have kept confidential items confidential.

“There didn’t have to be a legal mess at all,” Skoda said. “Barrett is already constrained by law. How is a board member to know whether our law firm is overreaching or what the problem is?”

Board member Kay Gallo asked that the judge’s decision be posted on the District 86 website, and Wahl agreed to get the ruling posted soon.

bdoyle@tribune.com

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