By Bob Skolnik
For the second month in a row on Dec. 18 there was a standing room-only crowd at a meeting of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education. And, many were there to ask questions and comment about the circumstances surrounding the sudden removal of a part-time teacher at Ames School last year and the actions of Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi.
But, as in the past, there were more questions from those at the meeting than answers from the school board.
"At public comment we don't answer questions," said school board President Mary Ellen Meindl in response to a question about whether district policies were followed about reporting allegations of child abuse.
The teacher ultimately resigned a year ago after the district first tried to fire her. The teacher was suspended without pay in September 2011, two weeks after Lieggi had gone to Riverside police to report that her daughter had been abused by the teacher when the teacher had been babysitting for Lieggi.
A police investigation cleared the teacher and found no evidence of any abuse. After first moving to fire the teacher for alleged violations of policy, the district eventually agreed to pay the teacher for the remainder of the school year if she resigned and agreed not to sue the district.
Lieggi also reported to police that her children told her that they had been abused by a Riverside family and her ex-husband, but police also cleared the family and the ex-husband.
At the Dec. 18 school board meeting, parents focused on whether the district followed district policy in reporting allegations of child abuse.
Meindl said that the board could not discuss specifics because they involved personnel issues.
"We are governed by our policies and legally we cannot talk about personnel issues with the public because every individual deserves privacy," Meindl said.
Many were not satisfied with that response.
"I'm very disappointed in the board in that I don't see any transparency," said Pearl Gaskins, the mother of an Ames School fourth-grader. "I'm very concerned about the safety of my child. I don't feel like that you are equally concerned with that."
Meindl told Gaskins that she should send the board an email if she had a specific question or concern and that the board would respond with what information it could.
When the public comment period was completed, Meindl read a prepared statement acknowledging the frustration that the school board's reticence has caused.
She said that the board's separation agreement with the teacher limited what it could say about the situation. The agreement states that if a third party inquiries into the teacher's employment, the district would reply with her last rate of pay, that she resigned to pursue other opportunities and that it is the district's policy to provide no other information regarding a district employee.
"We recognize it can be frustrating for members of the public to ask specific questions and not receive specific answers," said Meindl. "The safety of children in our schools is our highest priority. We have investigated, and continue to investigate, the actions of all employees involved in this matter to determine that district policy was executed correctly."
Meindl also stated that the school board's policy committee in November began reviewing policies to make sure what happened last year does not happen again.
Prior to Meindl's statement a few others expressed their exasperation with the lack of answers from the school board.
"This is my 12th year as a parent in this district, and it's been shoddy treatment from year one to year 12," said Mary Jo Robling. "This board has for years, and even the people who predate you, deflect, deflect, deflect. You don't respect the parents in this community."
But not everyone was critical. Karen McGee acknowledged that being a school board member was a difficult job.
"I would never be able to do it," McGee said. "It's a tough job and I thank you guys for sticking it out."