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SouthtownStar (Chicago, Illinois)



Quasi-governmental organizations often perform what appear to be government functions but contend that they are exempt from the laws pertaining to government bodies.

The Illinois High School Association is such an organization and is being sued by the Better Government Association, which wants to find out how it spends its money.

The IHSA runs state athletic competitions, governs recruiting processes for schools, sets drug policies and generates millions of dollars each year from events involving primarily public schools.

The BGA filed a request under Illinois' freedom of information law, asking the IHSA for "any and all IHSA contracts," including those with sponsors such as Nike, Gatorade and Country Financial and contracts for accounting, legal and public relations consultants.

The IHSA refused, claiming it is not a public body as defined by the freedom of information law.

"I'm hard-pressed to see how an organization that supervisors public school athletics can deny the public an opportunity to see how its spending its money," BGA president Andy Shaw said.

In response to a 2003 lawsuit alleging negligence and defamation, the IHSA claimed immunity under the Local Government and Employees Tort Immunity Act, according to the BGA's lawsuit.

The IHSA in the 2003 lawsuit claimed that it was a "local public entity" and "organized for the purpose of conducting public business." It also referred to the "overwhelming public character of the IHSA membership."

"The IHSA stressed that public schools made up 85 percent of its membership," the BGA lawsuit states.

Yet the IHSA s website contends that it receives no tax money, is a nonprofit organization and is therefore a private agency, not a public one subject to the state FOI law.

The IHSA has come under criticism by the Chicago Sun-Times, a sister publication of the SouthtownStar, for paying several of its employees more than $100,000 a year.

I have criticized the IHSA in the past for failing to mandate catastrophic health insurance policies for student-athletes in Illinois.

As a result of that campaign, the Legislature passed a law that sets minimum medical insurance coverage for student-athletes and "provides that the IHSA has the exclusive authority to promulgate a plan of coverage necessary to ensure compliance with these provisions." The law also requires the IHSA to provide a group insurance policy.

Shaw boils it down quite simply: How can an organization responsible for school athletic competitions, that sets guidelines that must be followed by public-school athletes, that sets regulations for public schools, claim that it has no responsibility for revealing how it spends money?

From the IHSA's point of view and those of many of its member schools, the answer is simple. The IHSA is an independent agent on behalf of the schools.

Or to be more precise, the IHSA generates money for its schools, and the school boards, athletic directors and coaches are prepared to protect it from public scrutiny.

That's how Consolidated High School District 230, based in Orland Park, got dragged as a defendant into the BGA lawsuit.

There's a law that states a public agency that does business with another agency, even if it is private, must turn over any documents in its possession about that private business.

Andrew High School in Tinley Park is in District 230, and its principal, Andrew Nolting, is an IHSA board member.

So the BGA filed a freedom of information request with District 230, asking for the IHSA documents that it couldn't get from the IHSA. District 230 denied the request, claiming that the documents sought "do not pertain to the transaction of the district's public business."

Let's forget the legal mumbo jumbo for a minute and the responsibility of public bodies to be transparent.

Why would organizations that use schoolchildren to make money refuse to provide information about how they spend that money?

There would be no need for a lawsuit if people of good will simply did what was in the public's interest.

And that brings me back to the FOI law, which by its very existence condemns the behavior of public officials who are supposed to act on our behalf. Although the law is very long and hard to understand, its only intent is to guarantee that the public has the right to see public documents.

No citizen should ever have to file a request under the law because every public document should be available to anyone who wants to look at them.

Sure, there might be rare exceptions, such as a police report on a crime involving juveniles or a rape victim, when a name or home address ought to be blacked out.

But in the vast majority of freedom of information cases that's not what the fuss is about.

It's about some government official, or quasi-government official, saying that he will be the sole judge of what the public gets to see. "Those documents belong to me, not you," is the general attitude of the officials who work for us.

The IHSA obviously believes it is above public scrutiny. Its board members, school officials who for the most part are paid with tax money, feel the same way.

It's their business how they make money, spend money or enforce their rules, and the public be damned.

The IHSA shouldn't have needed a state law requiring catastrophic health insurance for student-athletes. It should have been looking out for the best interests of the kids.

And it shouldn't need a court ruling to protect it from public scrutiny.

It should simply do the right thing and comply with the BGA's request for its documents.

If it's doing its job properly, it should have nothing to fear.


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