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Thursday, April 25, 2013 11:01 pm

School district seeks to rebuild trust

Board apologizes and accepts two resignations

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Springfield Public Schools’ interim superintendent Bob Leming met with parents of students affected by a test score leak in order to apologize for the school district’s failings and promise changes
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

The Springfield School Board took the first steps on Monday night toward rebuilding parents’ trust in the district, following the leak of test data from a besieged middle school. The board unanimously voted to accept the resignation of two district employees involved in the test score leak, providing a measure of closure for parents who complain of a longstanding trust deficit.

“We have a problem here with credibility on the school board and trust,” said Bob Ogden, a parent of a student affected by the test score leak. “That credibility gap and trust gap is larger than your financial deficit. The only ones that can change that is the school board – the outgoing and the incoming. You’ve got to rebuild the trust. There has to be some way of reaching out to the community and saying we don’t act like that.”

Interim superintendent Bob Leming took the role of diplomat at Monday’s meeting, apologizing for the leak of confidential data and saying the district would make changes to prevent similar leaks in the future.

“My hope would be that you give us another chance, that the district is going to take steps going forward to make sure, in every possible way, that this doesn’t happen again,” Leming said.

The test scores were leaked in the midst of a contentious battle over the planned closure of the Capital College Preparatory Academy, a popular, technology-oriented middle school used as an alternative to traditional learning environments.

The school board twice voted to close the school during a budget process that saw more than $6 million in cuts district wide. The leaked test scores were allegedly accessed by school district employee Jennifer Gilson, who did not have authority to access the scores, according to a police report on the leak. Gilson allegedly passed the scores on to district employee Debbie Sidener, who allegedly passed the scores on to David Milling, chairman of the former Community Budget Review Committee. The CBRC was appointed by the school board to identify possible budget cuts, though interim superintendent Leming confirmed at an April 18 meeting with the CCPA Parent Teacher Association that the motive for the leak appeared to be to discredit claims that the school had helped improve student test scores.

 A third district employee, Sue Ruff, allegedly told an uninvolved employee to delete records of access to the files.

Sidener’s and Ruff’s resignations were accepted unanimously by the school board at Monday’s meeting, though the board did not address Gilson’s alleged involvement. One district employee who had signed up to speak publicly at the meeting declined to do so when she learned Gilson’s case wouldn’t be handled by the board until the upcoming May 6 meeting.

  A police investigation into the test score leaks found no criminal violations of state law, based on the assumption by police that Milling had authority to receive the data based on his former affiliation with the school district as a member of the CBRC.

But the board on Monday unanimously passed a resolution proposed by board member Bill Looby to specify that the CBRC did not have authorization from the board to access student data. Prior to the vote, Looby asked if any other board members wanted to volunteer that they were working with Milling when the test scores were leaked. His question was met with silence.

 “The common sense view is that a budget committee should not have had access to this data, and especially not several months after it was no longer active,” Looby said. “I want this board to take responsibility.”

Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser said the board’s resolution doesn’t change his decision not to press charges.

“My investigation is limited to whether criminal charges are appropriate, not whether violations of district policy occurred,” Milhiser said.

Releasing individual test scores without authorization is a petty offense, which in Illinois would mean a possible fine and probation.

The school board also passed a resolution proposed by board member Candace Mueller, apologizing for the test score leak. Prior to the board’s unanimous vote of approval, Mueller read the resolution aloud, saying, “Let it be resolved that the school board members currently sitting join with interim superintendent Robert Leming in expressing our sincere apologies for the breaking of trust and the suffering and distress caused to the students and their families by this unfortunate incident.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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