Exploring political interference in West Cook school boards

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A school board in Illinois is an unpaid group of volunteers who meet monthly and serve as an interface between the tax payers and school taxing bodies. A school board has one employee, the superintendent. School boards should not be making hiring recommendations of teachers, staff, or contractors.

However, in West Cook County, in low-income school districts up and down the Des Plaines River, local politicians, lawyers and vendors have moved in on the control of school boards. Politicians hand-pick slates of school board members and pay for campaign materials and fundraisers. In traditionally low-turnout elections, it is relatively easy to seize control of a school board. Their prize? Control of millions of dollars of the school district money, and a patronage dumping ground for loyal campaign workers, friends and family.

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Changing culture at a politicized district

 

Nonviolent security training and restorative justice move forward at Proviso HS D209

Proviso Township High School District 209 will take a new approach to training security guards next year, Chief Financial Officer Todd Drafall told the school board at the July 14 meeting. The board approved a contract with  Conflict Prevention Institute (CPI) from Milwaukee a company specializing in “nonviolent crisis intervention” training.

These changes are an example of a quick improvement in school culture that can happen when a board is relieved of the pressures of answering to Cook County political overlords. The D209 board turned over in April, 2015, in a surprise election that brought independent candidates to the majority.

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Proviso Township HS D209 has some of the lowest-performing schools in the state of Illinois. Seven percent of students at Proviso East test ‘college-ready’ according to the Illinois Interactive Report Card. PEHS is plagued by student fights, especially since the racial composition of the school has changed to 55 percent black and 41 percent Hispanic.

“They say it will take a long time to ‘turn a big ship around’ and change school culture, but this is happening very quickly,” school board Secretary Ned Wagner said. Wagner pointed to a new student discipline committee consisting of a Maywood police officer, board members, teachers, students from all three schools and community residents.

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Starting this year, the district staff will be on the lookout for students who are having behavioral health, family, relationship or “other life issues” that are interfering with success in school.

Security guards and fights at Proviso East, caught on cellphone, plagued the district last school year. In December, local television stations broadcast cellphone video showing Varsity Boys Basketball Coach Donnie Boyce allegedly choking a girl involved in a fight. Boyce was working full time as a security guard for the school. Then on May 13, WGN broadcast more cellphone video of two security guards who appeared not to intervene in a fight between two girls. The guard, who was fired, told the board she was never trained in restraining a student with a weapon.

Wagner  called for a “less martialistic” approach to security and student discipline. Board President Theresa Kelly has repeatedly called for improvement in security guard training.

Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart also praised the board for “making our number one goal student achievement” instead of focusing on cutting costs. Collins-Hart said the board approved more new programs last year than in the past six combined, citing the new cosmetology and IB programs.

“I’m encouraged and excited we’re going to have those discussions,” she said.

Grand jury probes former superintendent’s spending

Retired Riverside SD 96 Superintendent Jon Lamberson, who receives the 25th-highest public pension in the state of Illinois  is being investigated by the Illinois Attorney General’s office after irregularities were found in his reported salary contribution and expenses.

Lamberson worked at the district from 2005-2013. He also wore a second hat as the district’s chief financial officer.

It was as finance officer that Lamberson was charged with calculating his own pay and benefits. The district has since hired a separate finance officer.

2_2_34408_2_1_350x700Jonathan Lamberson Courtesy RB Landmark

Last year, the D96 school board discovered a salary discrepancy in how vacation days were counted toward a pension obligation. They informed the former superintendent  he was credited with $78,444 more in earnings than he was entitled to. The board also found discrepancies in Lamberson’s alleged use of the district credit card for personal purchases at Costco and other merchants. Lamberson may also have used the district card for gasoline when he had a district-issued travel allowance.

Lamberson left the district to take a job in Milwaukee, putting D96 and the on the hook for his pension early since he left the state. He has now retired to Minnesota. According to the Better Government Agency’s database, Lamberson was paid a public pension of $262,516 in 2014.

The board announced at the July, 2015 meeting they were cooperating with the Illinois Attorney General’s office in the investigation of  “a district employee.”

 

Read more in the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark

 

Follow the cash: Common donors gave to Cook County school board elections

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Click for an infographic of campaign cash spending on Cook County school board races.

In the April, 2015 Cook County elections, a number of local mayors, two state representatives and a township highway commissioner got actively involved in local school board elections. They paid for campaign mailers, palm cards and even robo-calls.

Southtown Star columnist Phil Kadner noticed the trend in south Cook County:

There was a time, back in my days as a young reporter, when suburban mayors would boast that they never got involved in school board elections. Voters don’t want politicians sticking their noses into education, they would tell me. 

Many of those mayors, who were kings in their communities, said they personally felt it was wrong to do so. It’s about what’s best for our children, they would say, not what’s best for anyone’s political career. LINK

Now that the Illinois State Board of Elections released campaign donation information for the second quarter of 2015, it’s interesting to follow the money.

In an off-year election, some familiar benefactors were donating to local politicians’ campaigns. Also several new education PACs appeared on the scene in Spring 2015. Familiar donors show up in those records too.

An analysis discloses how three recurring patrons show up in the campaign contribution records for the politicians and school board committees in the April 7, election. They are Del Galdo Law Group, Odelson & Sterk attorneys, and Franklin Park company Restore Construction.

Del Galdo Law Group was by far the most generous donor to these committees. Companies owned by attorney Michael Del Galdo donated more than $32,000 to nine of the 10 election committees we’re examining here.

chi-ugc-ugc-relatedphoto-cook-towns-hire-michael-del-galdo-to-defend-a-2014-05-20Del Galdo works for 40 municipalities and schools and is a prolific campaign contributor. These races and candidates were only a fraction of the total campaign contributions he made in the spring 2015 election cycle. Of the elections we have been following, Del Galdo Law Group is employed by school districts Berwyn SD100 Morton High School District 201, Cicero SD 99 and Proviso District 209, among others.

Odelson and Sterk attorneys are municipal and school lawyers based in Evergreen Park. They are also experts in election law. Burt Odelson made the news when he challenged Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago residency in 2010. In 2007 Odelson & Sterk were booted from their contract at Proviso Township HS District 209, and replaced by Del Galdo.

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Odelson reached a $400,000 settlement after he sued D209’s then-board President Emanuel “Chris” Welch for libel for anonymous online blog posts and a judge ruled Welch had defamed Odelson.

Restore Construction owner Patrick Santoro is a major donor to political campaigns, giving more than $300,000 to local pols. He’s good friends with Cicero Town President Larry Dominick. Restore Construction got a $5 million no-bid contract from District 209 to make repairs after a fire at Proviso East High School.

Campaign cash roundup: What’s new?

South Berwyn D100

In Berwyn, Mayor Robert Lovero supported a slate of four candidates for South Berwyn SD 100. New reports show D100 Facilities Manager George Lambesis gave $1,200 to the mayor’s committee. Lambesis was paid $850 during the school board campaign for “supplies.” Del Galdo Law Group was hired as D100 school attorneys in May 2014.

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Residents said they got robo-calls with Caller ID listing “Democratic Citizens of Berwyn” but that expense never turned up on the DCOB campaign committee’s expense filing. Berwyn School Superintendent Stan Fields donated $300 to Lovero’s campaign committee.

J Sterling Morton High School D 201

Cicero Town President Larry Dominick supported four candidates for the Jay Sterling Morton High School District 201 school board race. Board President Jeff Pesek is a longtime Cicero resident and contributor to Dominick, through his restaurant The Dog Stop. The other three candidates had a connection to Cicero town government. Mark Kraft is an employee of the Clyde Park District; Sandra Tomschin and Lido Manetti are both employees of the Town of Cicero.

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The race was a bitter struggle between the high school’s two feeder communities of Cicero and Berwyn. Berwyn candidates were knocked off the ballots after a series of expensive election challenges. Larry Dominick’s committee, Cicero Voter’s Alliance (The Larry Dominick Team) paid election lawyers Ancel Glink et al to challenge candidate paperwork of Berwyn candidates. Morton Superintendent Michael Kuzniewsky donated $4,500 to Dominick’s Cicero Voter’s Alliance committee.

Del Galdo Law Group serves as the law firm for Morton D 201. Del Galdo donated $5,000 to Dominick in the first half of 2015.

Dominick also donated to school board campaigns in Lyons SD103 and Proviso Township HS D209.

Lyons SD 103

In Lyons SD 103, the total amount paid by Lyons Mayor Christopher Getty to the Parents for Student Excellence PAC reached over $13,000.

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Odelson &  Sterk law firm donated $1,600 to Getty’s war chest. Shortly after the election, they were hired as the attorneys for SD 103.

Orland Hills CHS District 230

Orland Hills Town President Kyle Hastings received $500 from both Odelson & Sterk and Del Galdo Law Group. Hastings sponsored four unsuccessful candidates for the Consolidated High School District 230 school board. One of them was his son’s former roommate in Springfield.

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Hastings, who is also a retired school superintendent, joins Odelson & Sterk as a new employee of Lyons SD103. He’s receiving $900 a day as interim superintendent.

Southtown Star columnist Phil Kadner reported a politician need only motivate 11% of the voters to get his candidates into the school board.

Calumet D 132/ Community  HS D 218

Bob Rita

Blue Island State Rep. Robert Rita paid for a get-out-the-vote campaign in early April for his support of two school board elections.  Rita’s campaign helped overthrow a long-time Community High School District 218 board president who was criticized for organizing a board meeting at a pricey chophouse.

State Rep Rita was also a recipient of Del Galdo Law Group cash.

Chicago Ridge SD 127.5

Worth Township highway supervisor Ed Moody is a former school board member on Chicago Ridge SD 127.5. Moody ran a hand-selected group of candidates and took over the board.

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Their campaign committees received almost $9,000 in donations from Del Galdo Law group, Restore Construction and Moody’s twin brother Fred Moody.

Proviso Township HS D 209

Seventh- Dist. State Representative Emanuel “Chris” Welch ran his wife ShawnTe Raines-Welch unsuccessfully on the Proviso Children First Party ticket for Proviso HS District 209. In spite of spending over $40,000, all three Children First candidates lost to a grassroots ticket of two parents from Forest Park and a veteran board member from Maywood.

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Familiar names appear as donors:  Restore Construction, Del Galdo Law Group and Larry Dominick.

Melrose Park Mayor Ronald R. Serpico, Sr.’s campaign war chest raised over $125,000 in the first half of 2015. Serpico has often been a supporter of candidates for the Proviso Township High School District 209 board. He was an early backer of State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who spent 10 years as D209 board president.

Serpico

Serpico received campaign cash from Dominick, Restore Construction and Del Galdo. He also donated to Dominick and Welch. But this election, Serpico did not donate a cent to the Proviso Children First Party.

Speculation swirls around replacement trustee for Triton College board

Appointment seen as plum for local pols

A seat on the Triton College board of trustees has opened up, leading to speculation amongst local west-Cook politics watchers as to who will be appointed to fill the vacancy. 

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The community college is also on the hunt for a new president, after the retirement of Patricia Granados.

In April Forest Park Village Clerk Vanessa Moritz walked away after just two years — and the resignation was announced during the June 16 board meeting.

Moritz told the Forest Park Review  she “just didn’t really like it” and, “It just really wasn’t right for me.” The Triton board has 60 days to fill the empty seat.

Political guessing abounds as to who will be chosen to fill the slot.

Membership on the Triton College Board of Trustees — under the helm of President Mark Stephens for the past 23 years — has been considered a political balancing act between Rosemont’s Stephens clan and Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico, Sr.

The two pols have a long history with the River Grove community college. Stephens has served on the board for almost three decades, and Serpico’s father, Ralph “Babe” Serpico was one of the founders of the school in 1964, and served on the first board of trustees.

Outgoing  trustee Moritz, who is Forest Park’s mayorally appointed village clerk, was Calderone’s representative on the Triton board. Whomever is appointed would serve out Moritz’s term and then run again in 2017.

 

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Sanchez, Hoskins, Raines Welch

Some Forest Parkers are predicting former Forest Park Village Commissioner Rory Hoskins may be appointed. Hoskins served two terms as commissioner, and showed he had bigger political ambitions when he lost a 7th District run against Emanuel “Chris”  Welch by a handful of votes in 2013.

This past April, Hoskins suddenly threw his support at the last minute behind incumbent Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone, who squeaked into a win with just over 100 votes. 

While Calderone’s political prestige beyond Forest Park was dulled by his being unable to deliver a strong local vote for the Serpico-backed Proviso Township High School District 209 school board slate, he still likely has Serpico’s ear and might be able to advocate for Hoskins.

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Broadview school board members billed for investigation – of themselves

After Lindop School District 92 write-in coup, lawyers submit bills for residency, criminal record checks

The new board president of Broadview’s Lindop School District 92 was shocked to receive a $1,426 bill from a lawyer investigating herself and another board member.

A bill for 12 hours of surveillance of Board President Princess Dempsey to see if she lived in the district and an investigation into an alleged felony charge for a newly elected board member Anissa Cubie were submitted for payment by the district’s lawyers at the June 16 board meeting.

Both investigations were found to be unfounded, documents show.

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Princess Dempsey

Dempsey alleged at the meeting that outgoing nine-year President Carla Joiner-Herrod was behind the investigations along with Superintendent Dr. J. Kamala Buckner – who abruptly quit.

“I live in Broadview, period. That’s where I live. The investigation found that,” Dempsey said. “It was a waste of the district’s dollars to pay for me to be followed by investigators.” She suggested the board send the bills to Joiner-Herrod to pay for personally.

Dempsey led an overthrow slate of write-in candidates in the uncontested board elections April 7. Dempsey, Anissa Cubie and Shyrl Griffin were elected with a total of 37 write-in votes. Griffin is the mother of new Vice President Tamara Whitfield.

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According to a memo from the district’s lawyers posted on the D92 website, on April 28 – three weeks after the election, but before new board members were sworn in – representatives of the Lindop Teachers Association requested Buckner investigate the residency of Dempsey and investigate rumors Cubie had been convicted of a felony.

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“Additional investigation was conducted under authority of the board president,” wrote Franczek Radelet attorney Dana Fattore Crumley. Crumley did not return emails or phone calls for comment.

The bill also showed a half-hour of research billed at $76.50 April 9 for “review for write in candidates to the board.”

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Ballot challenge reform bill in Springfield uses Morton District 201 as example

By Joe Sinopoli,  My Suburban Life

The Cook County Board of Elections is working with Springfield legislators on a harmless error bill “so candidates don’t have to jump through hoops to get on the ballot,” Cook County election Board spokeswoman Courtney Greve said.

Sen. Daniel Biss, Skokie, is sponsoring the bill, and, according to Greve, is using the Morton District 201 election as an example of “how eliminating these harmless errors would allow better ballot access.”

Sandra+TomschinSandra Tomschin

In April, such errors essentially wiped out a slate of opponents of the entrenched Morton High School District 201 Board of Education, even though the opponents were exonerated by the Cook County Board of Elections. However, the possibility the ruling would be appealed, and the high legal costs of having to go back to court led to the decision to drop out of the race.

Dist. 201 candidates Jill Alexander, Shelly Picha and Catherine “Caty” Sullivan, who were running under the What Will It Take Party, and incumbent Vincent La Paglia withdrew their names from the April ballot even after the Cook County Electoral Board ruled in their favor over objections raised against them by Thomas A. Tomschin regarding technicalities in the filing procedure. Tomschin serves on the Cicero School District 99 School Board and his wife, Sandra Tomschin, ran unopposed for a seat on the District 201 Board.

Read more in the Suburban Life

New Proviso board: Top-paid staff should move to worst high school

The new Proviso Township High School District 209 board proposed big changes for their highest-paid district employees at Tuesday’s board meeting: Move your offices to Proviso East High School.

Currently, nine of the district administrative staff work at Proviso Math and Science Academy at First Avenue and Roosevelt Road in Forest Park. They would be moving up First Avenue to Maywood if the board gets its way.

“Since we’ll have a new principal and we have had a lot of trouble there, it would make sense to have extra oversight [at Proviso East],” said Board Secretary Claudia Medina.

Three board members making up the new majority ran on a platform of change for the troubled district — and they appear to be in the mood for BIG changes to make the administration more accessible to parents, teachers and students.

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Claudia Medina

The new board asked the district architect for a cost estimate to move the administrative offices to a three-story wing remodeled and updated after an electrical fire in May, 2014.

Proviso East High School is rated among the lowest 20 percent of schools in the state, with just 10 percent of juniors testing “college ready” on the ACT. Forty-two percent of students drop out, and the school battles chronic truancy. Two years ago, according to the Illinois Report Card,  79 percent or 1,520 Proviso East students had nine or more unexcused absences.

The school was built in 1911 and the district is only now getting around to making life safety repairs recommended in 1988 (the last year of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s administration). One storage area in the school is referred to as “Jurassic Park,” building manager Ron Anderson said at Tuesday’s board meeting. Continue reading

Lyons mayor gets his law firm, superintendent in elementary District 103

The mayor-backed Lyons Elementary District 103 board majority met May 7 and voted in a new law firm, Odelson & Sterk, who are also counsel for the village of Lyons. They also appointed a new superintendent, Kyle Hastings.

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Kyle Hastings

Since 2011, Odelson & Sterk donated $8,100 to Citizens for Christopher Getty, including picking up the tab over the years for several meals at Gibson’s Steak House and the Capital Grill.

The law firm has been generous to area politicians in Lyons, Stickney and Cicero. Within the past six months, they also donated $1,750 to  Getty’s United Citizens Party, $700 to the Stickney Township Regular Democratic Assn. and $1000 to the Cicero Voters Alliance. Getty himself contributed more than $11,000 to the new school board candidates committee.

The board also swept in a new politically connected interim superintendent, Kyle Hastings, who has served as Mayor of Orland Hills (population 6,700) for the past 23 years. Odelson and Sterk donated $1,500 to Citizens for Kyle Hastings in October, 2014.

” I’m one of the best superintendents around,” he told the packed board meeting. Former board President Joanne Schaeffer questioned that assessment. “Uh, I Googled,” she said.

Hastings is a member of the PACE board of directors and is politically connected to Republican 17th District Cook County Commissioner Liz Doody Gorman, of Orland Park.  As a retired superintendent, he’s recently been hired and let go as assistant superintendent from Bloom Township High School District 206 and as superintendent from Bellwood District 88. He previously served as an administrator in Proviso Township High School District 209. 

Meanwhile, the outgoing middle school principal called the meeting “a spectacle” and said his sixth- through eighth-grade students would find it instructive to attend to see, “a hands-on example of Tammany Hall and political machines.”

Read more in the Riverside Brookfield Landmark.

 

Gloating, name calling and inflatable ducks

This is a story of two school board upheavals in west-Cook County: We’ll examine two districts: Lyons Elementary 103 and Proviso Township High School 209. Lyons is small, around 2,500 students, more than 70 percent determined to be “low income” by the Illinois State Board of Education. Proviso is a district of 4,700, with just over half the students low-income. Both serve some of the poorest, lowest-scoring children in west-suburban Cook County.

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“Lame” inflatable duck at Parents for Student Excellence rally in Lyons April 30.

Last week, both school boards majorities were replaced after contentious campaigns. But the transitions between boards were notable. In Proviso’s case, a slate of independent parents wrested majority control from a long-politicized board. For the first time in 15 years, the Proviso D209 board majority was not dominated by employees or close associates of Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico or 7th District State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch.

In Lyons, by contrast, the new board majority was swept into power by the cash and electioneering of Mayor Christopher Getty, who dumped ore than $11,000 into the race for his hand-picked board members.

 

Two different transitions

The Proviso board switchover April 30 was filled with talk of collaboration and cooperation and moving the district forward. There was a short reception afterward with cookies, fruit and drinks. Supporters from other school boards came to show support.

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