Sunday, April 2, 2017 || By Michael Romain || OPINION || @maywoodnews || Updated: 5:02 p.m.
To start, this isn’t a formal endorsement from the Village Free Press, which doesn’t endorse candidates. But because I’m this outlet’s publisher, I understand if anyone might disregard that proviso as meaningless and consider this an endorsement by another name.
So be it.
I don’t opine on elections often. The race for the four seats on the Bellwood District 88 school board, however, is not merely an election. It’s a rare opportunity for a fresh start for a district that is experiencing something of an existential crisis.
I’m in a position to know. What forced my hand, leading me to do something I rarely do, were numerous conversations I’ve had over the course of several months with people intimately involved in D88’s affairs (including parents, guardians and community members), and the penetrating reporting of the Chicago Tribune’s Angela Caputo and the Cook County Chronicle’s Jean Lotus and David Pollard.
Those conversations and reporting reveal what may very well be the most brazenly corrupt local government in Proviso Township, if not the entire state.
That we even know much about the district’s sordid affairs is due to the watchdog citizenry of a small group of frustrated Bellwood taxpayers, among them people who have to send their children to D88 schools.
Over the last few years, they’ve pushed back in classic, grassroots fashion. They created Facebook and YouTube pages, where they posted video of school district and library board meetings. They filed FOIA requests. They stood up to highly paid and well-protected bullies.
They mastered the school board’s own bylaws, policies and state education laws (to such an extent that they’ve corrected the elected school board members on multiple occasions). They asked hard questions. They researched. They mapped out the patronage hires and the shady contracts, laying it all bare for anyone, particularly an intrepid reporter, to see.
I’m confident that the Tribune’s reporting flowed from the strength of the case made, over weeks, months and years, by these citizens.
Great newspaper reporting is hugely indebted to the work of citizens who are too invested in a given community to let it be hijacked by the greedy interests of a few.
Now, four of those citizens are running for seats on the D88 school board. They include Dorothy C. Smith (175), Maria D. Perez (punch number 177), Deborah Giles (punch number 178) and April Falco (punch number 179).
If you live in Bellwood, don’t just for vote for these people, thank them for their public service.
Whether or not their mastery of grassroots activism translates into governing mastery is up for debate. What is not debatable, however, is that the school board members who allowed this disaster to happen need to go.
Here are some passages from Caputo’s reporting on D88 over the years:
February 6, 2015 || “Superintendent, ousted twice, hired for third time in Bellwood“
Bellwood School District 88 voted Thursday to give Superintendent Rosemary Hendricks a new two-year contract. She returned to the beleaguered district — which is on the state’s financial watch list — this school year on an interim basis. When she was hired, it marked the ninth time the top administrator’s job has been filled since 2001, which an earlier Tribune investigation found amounted to more turnover in the superintendent’s office than any other school district in the six-county Chicago area.
School board members wouldn’t disclose the terms of the contract but documents obtained by the Tribune show that the board was set to vote on a two-year deal that would give Hendricks $170,000 during the first year and $175,000 in the following school year. The agreement would take effect July 1. Until then, Hendricks will work under an existing contract that set her pay at $750 a day. She can work only 100 days under that agreement to remain eligible for the pension she is receiving through the Teachers’ Retirement System of the State of Illinois.
Board members hung their heads as they voted to approve the contract among a room full of angry parents who called for a professional search before settling on a new hire.
June 27, 2016 || “Bellwood district pays $105,000 to refill superintendent’s pension account“
Money may be tight in Bellwood School District 88, but the school board still managed to quietly divert more than $105,000 from an education fund to replenish a retirement account its superintendent drained years ago.
The money added 20 years of service to the Illinois Teachers Retirement System account for Superintendent Rosemary Hendricks. That change, under a TRS formula, would increase annual pension benefits to $77,000 from an estimated $14,000. Taxpayers across the state will pick up the tab, potentially for years to come.
July 19, 2016 || “Residents question Bellwood school district about hiring, spending“
Hendricks’ daughter Brittnay Atkinson was hired last year to fill a new student service coordinator job. At $70,000 a year, her salary was higher than those of 87 percent of teachers in the district. Atkinson has a bachelor’s degree in communications disorders from St. Xavier University and one year of experience as a teacher’s aide and special education assistant, her job application said.
Hendricks’ other daughter, Jocelyn Hendricks, who has an associate degree and is a licensed practical nurse according to her job application, was hired to fill a $78,500-a-year job as a district nurse.
September 21, 2016 | “Critics of Bellwood schools chief say hiring of armed guards is intimidation tactic”
When Superintendent Rosemary Hendricks was hired to lead [D88], one of her first orders of business was to bring in a security company to sweep her office for hidden electronic monitoring devices, or bugs.
Two years later, the district’s administrative center is now under the guard of armed security.
And in an unusual show of force, board meetings for Bellwood District 88 are being monitored by armed guards wearing bulletproof vests.
It’s all highly unusual for the typical school board meeting, which is usually filled with mundane discussions of budget and policy issues.
[Some parents and community members say] the hiring of a private security company, they say, is little more than an effort to intimidate opponents of Hendricks and board members. The critics point out that the district’s largest school, Roosevelt Middle School, has a single security guard keeping watch over nearly 750 children.”
A month after the school year began, basic needs at Bellwood’s schools are not being met. Parents complain that substitute teachers are still filling in until permanent hires are made. School buses are running chronically late. Even soap and toilet paper have been in short supply — and in more than one school, leaving basic hygiene needs unmet.
November 28, 2016 || “Bellwood school district faces more questions on spending“
Officials from a small, cash-strapped suburban school district have been under scrutiny this year for what critics say is excessive spending, from extensive travel, to adding friends and family to the payroll, to secretly padding the superintendent’s pension.
Now, they are facing new questions about how the district has shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars for taxi services in recent years under a no-bid arrangement.
March 18, 2017 || Cook County Chronicle, Jean Lotus & David Pollard || “Harvey Park District chief works a second job for Bellwood schools“
I can never get [McCaskill] at the park district; I call and call and call,” said Barbara Moore, an 18-year park district board member. “I don’t know what she is doing outside of Harvey, but I can truly tell you that she is seldom at the park district.” Park District regulars accuse McCaskill of moonlighting at another job.
Kisha McCaskill was paid $67,700 for the executive position by the Harvey Park District in 2016, according to records filed with the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. But during the 2015-16 school year, McCaskill — under her maiden name Kisha Hart — was also paid as salaried, non-certified staff an amount up to $40,000 for another job as human resources director, 21 miles from Harvey at Bellwood District 88. She is supervised by a relative, Supt. Rosemary Hendricks.