Illinois District’s School Board Members Have Ax to Grind Over Online News Photo

By Mark Walsh — August 07, 2014 4 min read
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Contract negotiations between Hinsdale Township High School District 86, which oversees two well-regarded high schools in Chicago’s western suburbs, and the teachers’ union have been tense for months.

The Hinsdale High School Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, authorized a strike in May over salary and benefits, and things have only escalated as the new school year draws near.

So some school board members of the 4,600-student district were alarmed this month when the union re-posted on its Facebook page a story from a local online news site about negotiations that included a rather jarring photo of a hatchet lodged in a car window. It turns out the photo was completely unrelated to the story and appeared on the union’s re-posting of the story on Facebook as a result of a technical glitch on Patch’s end.

Still, whether they realized the photo was a mistake or not, some board members were upset by the image as well as by comments posted on the union’s page that they described as disturbing.

According to a story in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune, District 86 board President Richard Skoda and member Claudia Manley called the photo “disconcerting and violent” at Monday night’s board meeting.

“Our attorney has advised us that this is a direct and overt threat to the board,” the Tribune quoted Manley as saying during the meeting. And Skoda “released a written statement calling the photo ‘alarming’ and scolding the union for leaving it posted for four days ‘accompanied by disturbing comments,’” the Tribune said.

“This photo is offensive and overtly suggestive of violence and as such does not belong in civil discourse,” Skoda’s statement said, according to the paper. Skoda also rebuked attendees at the board meeting who were chuckling when the photo was discussed. “If we have teachers in the audience, shame on you,” Skoda said, according to the Tribune.

The Hinsdale police department opened an investigation, but quickly concluded that no criminal offense had been committee, the Tribune said.

It turns out that the hatchet photo appeared by mistake with a news story about contract talks on the Patch online news site serving Hinsdale and its nearby suburbs.

“On August 1, a story regarding the latest developments in teacher contract negotiations between the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association and Dist. 86 school board was posted on the Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills, Darien and Burr Ridge Patch sites,” says an Aug. 4 statement from the editor. “The story, ‘Teachers: “Board Gave Us An Hour” To Rescind Strike Vote,’ was illustrated with the HHSTA union logo. Unfortunately, when the teachers’ association posted the story on its Facebook page, the image of an ax in a car dashboard appeared instead. This was an Internet glitch on Patch’s part, which was happening to Patch Facebook pages across the country.”

“The ax image did appear on a Massachusetts Patch story about an ax falling off a truck and crashing through a woman’s car windshield,” the statement by editor Lorraine Swanson continued. “Some readers, when seeing the image of an ax with the story link on the HHSTA Facebook page, construed it as an editorial statement made by the teachers. The teachers’ association DID NOT intentionally post this image to make a statement.”

The teachers’ union, in a statement posted Thursday, alleges that Skoda knew what he was doing when he brought up the hatchet photo at Monday’s board meeting because Swanson, the local Patch editor, had called him to explain the glitch.

“Let’s say that again: Mr. Skoda was contacted that afternoon prior to the meeting,” the HHSTA says in its post. “The Patch glitch was fully explained to him prior to the meeting. ... He knew the teachers had nothing to do with the image. Yet he chose to accuse teachers of threatening violence during the meeting anyway. In fact, he went on so much, Swanson got up during open comments and publicly corrected the information he was ranting about!”

Skoda told Education Week in an email that his issue was with the fact that the union kept the Patch story re-posted on its Facebook page, with the hatchet photo attached, for four days, despite requests from the school district that the image be taken down.

“The issue is not the Patch. Their explanation was legitimate,” Skoda wrote, though farther down he said Patch’s explanation was “baloney.” But the problem was the teachers’ union “was notified at 1 p.m. Friday [Aug. 1] of the inappropriateness of the picture,” he said. An individual at least purporting to be a teacher posted a comment that the hatchet photo was “intriguing,” Skoda said, and others “liked” the comment.

The school district’s attorney asked the union to take down the article from its Facebook page but the union refused, he said. The district has filed an unfair labor practices charge with state authorities over the photo, and on the advice of its lawyers filed “several police reports,” Skoda said.

The first day of school in the district is Aug. 22.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.