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By, MIKE WARREN
The Vandalia school board had its accreditation lowered from “recognized” to “on-probation” on Thursday, Dec. 23, following a tense online meeting over COVID-19 masking with Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) officials the day before.
The issue in this case of accreditation is an attempt by ISBE to enforce the COVID-19 masking decrees issued by Governor J.B. Pritzker. These mandates come to Illinois residents through Pritzker’s executive orders, which are known as: 2021-18 and 2021-32, among others. These orders make facial masking a statewide rule in public schools.
A loss of accreditation usually means both a loss of funding and also a loss of recognition from other academic institutions for graduates of Vandalia schools, but in this current situation the impact of that loss of accreditation is less clear than it has been traditionally.
Joe Lawson, a member of the Vandalia school board, wrote on Thursday, Dec. 30, “I believe earlier this year courts ruled funding couldn’t be withheld. Loss of accreditation could mean our kids wouldn’t receive accredited grade points for college transcripts. That’s a fairly fuzzy legal area. Does the local school district have authority to accredit the hours they give? That will be sorted out in courts. Many cases and issues will make their way to state courts.”
Vandalia schools remain accredited at this time. “On-probation” districts are still considered recognized institutions by Springfield until further notice. Further actions from the state government to remove accreditation would be both legally problematic for the state to pursue, and would likely result in continued legal action brought by attorneys representing local Illinois school boards.
School board members from Vandalia met with ISBE officials on Wednesday, Dec. 22 over the issue of whether the state government would downgrade accreditation of Vandalia’s schools. The meeting was held online. During the meeting, the state did not come to negotiate; they came only as enforcers. Casey Adam, Superintendent of Altamont, also reported similar observations in her recent meeting with state education officials. As such, Vandalia is not alone in experiencing this heavy-handed behavior from ISBE.
It took just one day after the meeting for the state officials to downgrade Vandalia’s accreditation—a seemingly lightening fast decision in the eyes of those who know how slowly government often works.
This probationary status is the latest punch thrown in a fight over COVID-19 mandates between an increasingly divided state. Battle lines have been drawn. Consequences are becoming increasingly serious. At least 58 school districts have gone to a mask optional policy in Illinois.
During the meeting, the Deputy Education Officer at Illinois State Board of Education—Krish Mohip, stated that, “We consider noncompliance with universal indoor masking to constitute a health hazard or danger” and this is the reason for the consideration of the “on-probation status” for Vandalia schools. Mohip also said that, “The State Superintendent may also change the existing recognition status for a school or district at any time, based on information obtained by any means.”
Mohip went on to say that he was not there to discuss the efficacy of masks. He also said, “The purpose of this conference is solely to assess interest in the ability to comply with the executive order.” This appeared to be an attempt from Mohip to silence any debate on masks, and back the school into a figurative corner of choosing to either “comply, or die” with the executive order.
However, Mohip’s proclamations were seriously contested by the attorney for Vandalia schools—Jerrold H. Stocks. According to Joe Lawson—a Vandalia school board member, “There are other districts joining our district and Hutsonville. It seems to be growing. Hutsonville and us are using a Decatur Law Firm with Mr. Stock being our attorney. There is also a public fund set up through his office for defense funds.”
Stocks is a highly experienced civil litigation attorney from Decatur, and he spoke to Mohip and his state officials on behalf of Vandalia by saying, “Is there any metric or basis where you have identified an actual danger specific to COVID in Vandalia schools” and also asked, “have you reviewed any of our COVID metrics, in making this suggestion or recommendation for probation?”
One of the state officials tried to evade the argument regarding the need for masks. He said to Stocks, “This action [proposed downgrade of accreditation] is brought through what we believe to be noncompliance with executive orders on mask requirements, we do not have information with which to engage in local conditions.”
Stocks said, “Your action is based solely on a status classification regarding a policy… and not upon any health metrics.” What this quote means from Stocks—to a point, is that the state was merely seeking to enforce a rule without taking into account the impact of that rule or the existing need for the rule they were enforcing.
What Stocks said was confirmed when another official with ISBE cited the reason for the accreditation downgrade was due to Vandalia’s Nov. 21 board meeting, a meeting wherein the Vandalia school board implemented a mask-optional policy. This would seem to confirm what Stocks pointed out regarding the claims of ISBE—these state actions are reactions to mere policy changes and not necessarily local health conditions.
Stocks also pointed out that the ISBE did not have a masking regulation, saying that it was a state regulation, and that the continued enforcement of the masking regulation from the state could be construed as an improper exercise of the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education.
Stocks raised a host of other issues, describing in detail that the orders to mask the students on campus would constitute a conflict with existing public safety rules for the school. He also pointed out that the state demands the school force masks on children, but would not protect the school from litigation. Such litigation against the school would argue that this policy could be criminal intimidation, offensive touching and battery, and would also create a worsening impact the school is facing with students who have suicidal ideation. Stocks also pointed out that nobody from the state was offering to fund any of these actions—or even help to solve any of these problems.
“There’s a host of issues, that we don’t think we can get to a position where we’re not exposed to violating legal requirements, you’ve placed your school districts in the crosshairs and you’ve stripped from them the ability to exercise the local control to evaluate what is or is not best for that particular district” said Stocks to the state officials during the Wednesday meeting.
He continued to the state officials, “No one is stepping up to indemnify this school district when parents sue them.”
Stocks pointed out the failure of the state officials to use discretion, in what appears to be a reference to the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution, “By definition if you do not undertake the obligation to review your jurisdiction to exercise discretion when you are acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, you are by definition of legion case law acting arbitrarily.”
He also said, “…but as these districts, these boards, when they succumb to the unlawful coercion of others, they’re the ones that will pay the price of in liabilities—and that moves upstream, and we hope at some point that measure is taken of many people to start doing the right thing and start working these problems out.”
Stocks finished his monologue by asking state officials to respect the US Constitution.
Additionally, since Vandalia went to a mask-optional policy, the state removed its testing equipment so as to destroy Vandalia’s mitigation layering system and force the school back into compliance with the executive orders—mandatory masking for everyone, including kids.
Joe Lawson summed up Vandalia’s position this way: “We want local control.”