Yorkville school board investigated by Illinois attorney general over closed meeting complaint

Four newly elected members of the Yorkville School District Y115 Board of Education prepare to take the oath of office on May 8, 2023 at the Yorkville High School library. They are, from left, Jason Demas, Darren Crawford, Michael Knoll and Michael Houston.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office is investigating a complaint alleging that the Yorkville School District 115 board violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act when discussing the book “Just Mercy” in closed session.

The board voted 4-2 at its Aug. 7 meeting to prohibit use of Bryan Stevenson’s memoir in the Yorkville High School English II Rhetorical Analysis course.

In a letter to School Board President Darren Crawford dated Oct. 2, Attorney General Public Access Bureau Deputy Chief Joshua Jones wrote that Mary Grzywa of Marseilles had filed a complaint alleging that the board held improper closed session discussions during its May 22 and Aug. 7 meetings.

“We have determined that further action is warranted as to the latter meeting,” Jones wrote to Crawford. “The Request for Review alleges, in relevant part, that the Board held an improper closed session about curriculum during its August 7, 2023, meeting.”

The Attorney General’s Office asks the School Board to provide copies of the Aug. 7 meeting agenda, minutes in both open and closed sessions, along with the closed session verbatim recording.

“Please also provide a detailed written answer to the allegation that the Board improperly discussed the removal of a book from the curriculum during that closed session,” according to Jones’ letter.

The school board has seven business days to reply after receipt of the letter.

Grzywa filed her complaint with the Public Access Bureau on Sept. 28.

“Although I am not a resident of the Yorkville School District, as a resident of the state of Illinois we are all harmed when one individual can complain that a book is controversial and deprive our students of an education with challenging and thought-provoking material.” Grzywa wrote. “The board owes the public full disclosure of their debate on the matter.”

Yorkville High School’s English faculty selected the book as an “anchor text” for a class that is designed to promote critical thinking.

“This book matched all of our criteria: appropriate rigor, content which allows for rich discussion and connected outside readings, high interest for readers and a suitable length,” according to the course description.

Earlier this year, a parent’s objection to the book triggered the district’s uniform grievance procedure.

Associate Superintendent Nick Baughman investigated the complaint and determined that no board policy had been violated. A letter to that effect was sent to the parent over the signature of then-Superintendent Tim Shimp.

The parent appealed the decision to the Yorkville School Board and the board discussed the matter in closed session before issuing a decision on May 22.

“The Board of Education acknowledges that using ‘Just Mercy’ as an anchor text to teach the English II unit was unintentionally controversial; therefore to ensure compliance with BOE policy the Board of Education is recommending adding a second text in addition to ‘Just Mercy’ as an option for students to choose,” according to a statement from the board.

“I do see both sides for this,” board President Darrent Crawford said at the time. “We’re just trying to give options.”

However, the board subsequently removed the option of reading “Just Mercy” as part of the course at its Aug. 7 meeting.

On a 4-2 vote, the board directed that the book may no longer be used in the course, although Crawford emphasized that it will continue to be available in the school library and has not been banned by the board.

Those voting in favor of removing the book from the class included Crawford and board members Jason Demas, Mike Knoll and Mike Houston. Those voting no were board members Leslie Smogor and Shawn Schumacher. Board member Jason Senffner was absent and has since resigned.

According a statement released by Crawford as well as the meeting minutes, Knoll and Houston deemed the book “too controversial.”

However, why the board revisited the issue and reversed its decision remains unclear. The discussions were held in closed session.

Crawford said one board member asked for a review, but would not say who. Demas, Houston and Knoll have declined to comment.

The four who voted to remove the book are new to the board, elected in the April 4 balloting.

At the board’s Sept. 25 meeting, a parade of YHS students blasted the board for its decision during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Parents and other adults also spoke, with most siding with the students while a few expressed support for the board’s decision.

Speakers opposed to the board’s decision pointedly asked the board members to explain their rationale for pulling the book from the course, but in keeping with board policy they did not respond.