This fall three District 208 school board members have held a couple of private, closed-door meetings with the executive board of the Riverside Brookfield Education Association, the union that represents teachers and most other employees at Riverside Brookfield High School.

The meetings are part of plan to hold monthly gatherings with the RBEA to try and build a closer relationship between the school board and the teachers as the school faces tough budget decisions.

Participating in the meetings were District 208 school board President Matt Sinde and board members Garry Gryczan and Mike Welch. Also present at the meetings were District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and Principal Pamela Bylsma.

The discussion at the meetings reportedly focused on the financial problems the district faces. The meetings have taken place in the superintendent’s conference room at RBHS and typically last for about an hour.

“We are meeting and discussing challenges that we have in the future, and if there are any resolutions to it,” said Sinde. “I just think we need to look at the challenges we face in the future and how we can resolve those and come up with possible solutions.”

Sinde said that he appointed Gryczan and Welch, both with strong financial backgrounds, to participate in the meetings.

The meetings have been held without any public notice despite including a majority of a quorum of elected board members, which would seem to be a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

However, Sinde said he was advised by the school board’s attorney, Todd Faulkner, that the meetings are legal. Section 18 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act provides that the Open Meetings Act does not apply to collective bargaining sessions and grievance arbitrations.

“The Illinois Education Labor Relations Act exempts negotiations from the Open Meetings Act entirely,” Faulkner told the Landmark.

But while the participants in the talks have been reluctant to say much about their discussions, it appears that, to date, the talks have been more general in nature and not what is usually thought of as collective bargaining.

“It’s really just been relationship building,” said Skinkis when asked about the talks.  Skinkis said that he suggested that school board members meet with the RBEA to improve communication among the school board, the administration and the union.

“It’s more or less been a communication strategy I put in place just to get everybody talking in the same room,” Skinkis said. “I reported back to the school board that I think we needed to improve communication with the union and the teachers. It’s strictly a communication group right now.”

Sinde declined to give a definitive answer when asked if the meetings were about collective bargaining.

“I’m not going to disclose what we talked about at those meetings, but they were geared towards what we’re going to do with the budget for next year, which would involve the 76 percent of my budget in staff salaries [and benefits],” Sinde said. “We’re just progressing and talking.”

The RBEA has a five-year contract with District 208 that runs through June 30, 2013. Negotiations have not yet started on a new contract. It appears that board members are sounding out the union leadership to see if the union might be willing to make any contract concessions such as a wage freeze.

But Skinkis told the Landmark that no formal request has been made to the RBEA to reopen the current contract.

“No request for concessions yet,” Skinkis said. “Not at this time.”

RBEA president Dave Monti, a science teacher at RB, declined to comment when asked about the substance of the meetings.

“Our monthly meetings are confidential,” Monti said in an emailed response to questions about what was discussed during the meetings.

The Illinois Open Meetings Act applies when the majority of a quorum of a public body, which is three members in the case of the District 208 school board, meets to discuss public business.

The primary purpose of the Open Meetings Act is that public business be discussed in the open and not behind closed doors. Even though certain subjects, such as the employment of specific people or “collective negotiating matters between the public body or its employees or their representatives,” can be discussed in closed session, those closed sessions meetings still must fulfill public notice requirements and be openly posted.

The meetings must begin and end in open session the public body must vote to go into closed session. None of those things have been done as part of these meetings with the RBEA executive board.

The Open Meetings Act applies only to the school board members, not to the RBEA executive board or administrators.

Violation of the Open Meeting Act is a criminal offense, a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 and imprisonment of up to 30 days.

Any person can also bring a civil court case alleging that Open Meetings Act was violated with 60 days of the alleged violation.

When asked about the meetings, a spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General’s Office said that her office did not have enough information to determine whether the meetings with the RBEA violated the Open Meeting Act, but noted that anyone could file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office if they feel the Open Meetings Act was violated.

Whether the meetings violated the law would depend on whether collective bargaining or grievance arbitration was going on during the meetings.

“It pertains to kind of what they’re talking about, and I think that’s what we would be trying to get at if we were actually to look into this,” said Natalie Bauer, the communications director for the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

Sinde said that he believes that the meetings are legal.

“We were following the advice of our counsel, and that’s the procedure we used in doing these meetings,” Sinde said. “I would describe it as that we’re following the letter of the law to what our attorney said we could discuss.”