After six months of often emotionally charged school board meetings crowded with spectators and closed door meetings often lasting past midnight, the end came quickly, and without drama or spectators, for Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi.
With only a newspaper reporter and photographer present, five members of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education voted unanimously to accept Lieggi’s resignation at a special meeting on March 28 at L.J. Hauser Junior High School.
Two members of the school board, Lisa Gaynor and Art Perry, were not at the meeting because they were out of town. Lieggi’s resignation will be effective June 30.
As part of her resignation agreement Lieggi will receive a $69,000 severance payment. The district also agreed to pay Lieggi’s health insurance premiums for up to one year. Lieggi agreed not to sue the district in return.
Lieggi’s resignation was the culmination of an improbable chain of events that resulted in anger and ill will among many in Riverside. As the story developed, Lieggi’s reputation was tarnished as were those of District 96 superintendent Jonathon Lamberson, District 96 school board members, a partner in the law firm that represented the district and the Riverside Police Department.
Last month Lieggi filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of her daughters against the village and several police and village officials, as well as four private citizens who distributed a police report claiming that her children’s right to privacy was invaded.
Attached to resignation agreement were statements from Lieggi and from the Board of Education.
“Circumstances require my departure in order to assist my daughters in their recovery process and pursue other professional interests,” Lieggi wrote. “I believe I leave Ames Elementary School a better place than I found it and will miss the professional relationships that I enjoyed during my 12 years working in the district.”
The statement from the Board of Education thanked Lieggi for her service and praised her for her accomplishments.
“Ms. Lieggi is leaving for personal circumstances and professional interests,” the press release stated. “The board of education would like to thank her for her 12 years of outstanding service to the children and families of District 96. Her dedication to excellence, constant improvement, and a child-centered learning experience make A.F. Ames Elementary School a great place to learn and teach. We wish her well in her future endeavors.”
The resignation agreement states that no other statements will be made to the public or the press other than the ones attached to the resignation agreement.
Lieggi’s accomplishments as principal at Ames were real and notable. Under her leadership test scores improved. In 2011 and 2012, Ames School won Academic Excellence Awards from the Illinois State Board of Education because at least 90 percent of Ames students met or exceeded state standards.
Lieggi’s downfall is rooted in events that occurred in the fall of 2011 when, just about one month into the new school year, Lieggi moved to fire Susan Battersby, a part-time teacher of gifted students at Ames.
Two weeks before the district suspended Battersby without pay, Lieggi went to the Riverside police and told then-Detective Sgt. David Krull that one of her daughters had said that she had been touched inappropriately by Battersby. Earlier in 2011, Lieggi had told Krull that her daughters had said that their father, Lieggi’s former husband, and members of the Corrigan family of Riverside had sexually abused them.
Krull investigated and found no evidence to support any of the allegations. Krull’s report exonerated Battersby, the Corrigan family and stated that Lieggi’s former husband passed a lie detector test.
In 2011, the school board was never informed that Lieggi had talked to police about Battersby. On Dec. 13, 2011 still not knowing that Lieggi had reported sexual abuse allegations against Battersby, the school board approved a resignation agreement with Battersby in which she agreed to resign and agreed not to sue the district. In return the district agreed to pay Battersby her normal salary for the rest of the school year.
It almost ended there. But Battersby’s father, Stephen, and Sue Corrigan would not let the matter the rest. Last summer they hand delivered copies of the 39-page Riverside police report into the allegations of sexual abuse, which Stephen Battersby had obtained in 2011 by filing a Freedom of Information Act request, to all the members of the school board.
School board members were advised by their attorneys that it was illegal to read the police report and most did not do so at that time. In August and September of 2012, Stephen Battersby and Sue Corrigan appeared before the school board to ask the board to look into the matter.
The Landmark was at the September school board meeting, began to investigate and published a story about the situation in October 2012. As soon as the story appeared, Lieggi removed her children from District 96 schools and she shortly thereafter moved out of Riverside. The police report began to be widely circulated in Riverside.
At first, school board members apparently hoped the outrage would die down and that they would not need to take any further action. But school board meetings in November, December and January were crowded with people, some expressing concern or outrage at how the district handled the situation.
But Lieggi also had her supporters. At the November meeting, a group of Ames teachers were present to show support for Lieggi, apparently ready to speak out if Lieggi was criticized. Lieggi herself mostly kept a low profile, not answering specific questions from the Landmark, saying she only went to the police because the Department of Children and Family Services told her to do so.
By the end of 2012, with the issue not dying out as they had hoped, school board members began reading the police report. In January the school board met with Lieggi in closed session.
A couple of weeks later the school board emailed a letter to District 96 parents trying to address concerns that some parents had raised. Lieggi apparently told school board members that parts of the police report were incorrect. She also apparently told the school board that she didn’t know of her daughter’s allegations against Battersby until they were mentioned in an interview the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center conducted with the daughter on Sept. 15, 2011.
One school member said that he was “concerned about a rush to judgment” against Lieggi. Another flatly said that Lieggi did not know about the allegations against Battersby until her daughter made them in the Sept. 15, 2011 interview.
However Lieggi’s own lawsuit, filed on March 1, states that Lieggi learned of the allegations in September 2011 from her daughter’s therapist and that Lieggi then reported that information to Krull. Lieggi also told the school board that DCFS told her within 24 hours of her CCAC interview that they found her daughter’s allegations against Battersby not to be credible, but apparently no evidence was produced that DCFS was at the interview or contacted Lieggi about it.
Information that surfaced early this year about Lieggi having a personal relationship with Justino Petrarca, a partner in the law firm that represented District 96 in the Battersby situation, also did not help. The school board hired a new law firm to represent the District in its dealings with Lieggi over the past two months.
Lieggi’s contract called for her to be given two months’ notice if her contract was not going to be renewed, so the board had to act by early April. According to state law, if Lieggi had not resigned she would have had the right to remain in District 96 as a tenured teacher even if she had not been rehired as principal.
The resignation puts an end to the emotional issue and is intended to allow the district and Lieggi to move on.
Prior to the resignation school board president Mary Ellen Meindl told the Landmark that she was confident that Lieggi would eventually find an another job in education.
“She hasn’t done anything wrong,” Meindl said.