Created: Friday, April 18, 2014 5:53 p.m. CDT
Updated: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 8:59 a.m. CDT
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Styf: Why we fight to bring you open records

There's a reason we fight for open records, and it's not because we need to know or think someone did something wrong.

This week, two school districts chose to hide information. And it wasn't clear why.

Five schools, four from our coverage area, are leaving their current conference to start the Kishwaukee River Conference.

Marengo and Harvard just took a different approach to it than the other three, not telling the public what they were doing until it was done.

The other three have made it what it is, a simple switch to a conference that makes a lot of sense for all of the teams involved.

The Woodstock school district posted its agenda Thursday, sending out its "board book" with details of the resolution involving their departure.

It may be a formality at this point, but it was simple and transparent.

Marengo posted a resolution to its Monday school board agenda but then refused to share the document, clearly defined by Illinois' Attorney General as a public record subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

It's defined as that so that the public can know what a board is about to do before it makes a decision and can give its opinion before the final decision is made.

Marengo superintendent Dan Bertrand didn't play along, using a loophole that allows a public entity five business days to respond to any FOIA request, thus keeping the public in the dark.

Harvard took it a step further. It has discussed the new conference several times without putting it on any agenda. And, when McHenryCountySports.com wrote about that fact Sunday, all past agendas were taken off the school's website.

Harvard posts a lot of items on its agendas, such as a new sign in the wrestling room and a presentation on Art in District 50. Not everything they post is a voting matter. But the district went out of its way to keep the athletic conference off its agendas, including during a 20-plus minute presentation given at its Nov. 20 meeting when principal Rob Zielinski acknowledged it was a big deal and went on to say that not everything that's been in the paper has been correct, without explaining what wasn't.

Everything the Northwest Herald has printed on the topic has come directly from a school board agenda or minutes or one of the athletic directors or principals involved.

That's where this gets interesting, because Burlington Central athletic director Steve Diversey told his board in December that Harvard had backed out of joining the conference. On Wednesday, they declared they were in.

All this happened without the board voting, because Zielinski said that the district's attorney told him that leaving a conference is not something the board had to vote on.

During the Nov. 20 discussion, however, it was stated the group would vote on it in December, a vote that apparently never occurred.

The question now is why Harvard wanted to be so quiet about it. The board posts plenty of items on its agenda, including names of employees it is about to hire.

With the conference change, which seemed to be a rather straightforward issue, they took a different approach despite asking for the board's "blessing" Nov. 20.

The law on the matter, from Illinois' Attorney General, says that anything "proposed, deliberated or decided" needs to be on the board's minutes. This certainly seems to fall under at least the first two.

Zielinski even said it had been discussed multiple times.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions [about the conference] with our board for a couple of years," Zielinski said Wednesday. "Every time we tell them, they say, ‘OK, that makes sense.’ ”

Yet it hasn't appeared on the public record. And, when asked why it hasn't, Zielinski simply said his attorney said the board didn't need to vote on it.

Why was the attorney even asked? Why go through all the effort to keep it from the people?

The problem with all this silence is that the general public doesn't usually attend school board meetings. There were zero members of the general public at either the Marengo or Harvard meetings to listen to discussion on the new conference this week.

And that's why we fight for that information so we can bring it to the public. If we don't, no one else will.

It looks like the leaders of both districts are hoping to keep it that way.

• Northwest Herald sports editor Jon Styf can be reached at jstyf@shawmedia.com or on Twitter @JonStyf.