Saturday, December 2, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
During a Nov. 7 regular board meeting, a series of proposed changes to the nepotism policy at Proviso Township High Schools District 209 prompted a heated debate between school board members about whether or not the changes are necessary.
The changes, introduced by board member Ned Wagner, who heads up the board’s Policy Committee, would prevent anyone related to, or in business with, a sitting board member from working in the district for as long as that board member is in office.
Wagner’s proposal goes beyond the district’s current nepotism policy, which only requires the district to practice “strict scrutiny in reviewing the hiring of any District employee who holds any familial or business professional relationship with any member of the Board or Administration,” according to the policy language.
According to the current policy, “Qualified candidates who have applied for a job within the District, and who hold any of the above relationships with a member of the Board and/or administration, may be offered a job so long as the individual hired is deemed to be the most qualified applicant for the job and he/she has complied with all requirements of the application process.”
Wagner’s proposed policy changes would prevent any candidate with an “interested relationship” with a board member or administration official from working in the district — regardless of qualifications. An interested relationship includes “a grandmother, father, mother, son daughter, brother, sister, spouse or domestic partner, niece, nephew, and cousin including all associated inlay and steps relationships.”
According Wagner’s proposed changes, a business professional relationship is considered an interested relationship if a person “with whom the Board or Administration member has currently or has had within the previous 24 months a relationship where [monetary or other consideration] has exchanged hands between the Board or the Administration member and the job candidate including the exchange of value with any organization in which the candidate plays a role of influence [sic].”
The proposed policy change would not apply to current employees with interested relationships who were hired before the adoption of the policy or who did not have an interested relationship when they were hired.
Any sitting board member with an interested relationship with a current employee would be required to publicly disclose “the nature and extent of the relationship” before any deliberations regarding the employee and to “recuse himself or herself from any deliberations or voting on any matter related to the employee’s wages, benefits, hours, terms and conditions of employment.”
Most board members welcomed the proposed changes as necessary correctives for a district long marred by patronage hires and apparent conflicts of interest between board members and employees.
Board member Rodney Alexander even referenced, and read verbatim from, a 2012 Chicago Tribune article that revealed that, across the Chicago region, “school boards are spending millions of public dollars employing board members’ relatives, a practice exacerbated by weak laws, little oversight and limited disclosure about who gets job.”
The Tribune reported that District 209 had “paid about $942,000 over nine years to four relatives of board President Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch, including a brother with a criminal past who earns $56,760 as a night custodian.
“Welch said he has ‘absolutely no role’ in the hiring process. He also has an aunt and two cousins in the district, in teaching, custodial and security jobs. Lawyers advised that he could vote on the hires, Welch said, so he didn’t abstain.”
Alexander said that Wagner’s proposed policy changes are necessary so that the board can “avoid the very appearance of evil.”
“This board has a history and we need to separate ourselves from that,” he added.
But board President Theresa Kelly and member Della Patterson argued that the changes were unnecessary and could even potentially lead to fewer opportunities for qualified area residents seeking to work at District 209 schools.
“I think the whole scope is near-sighted,” Kelly said. “It takes away great candidates. I don’t think it was well thought-out. Basically, the policy is calling for us to hire outside of this community.”
“We want to take a very close look at what we’re doing because Proviso, as are many other places, is an equal opportunity employer and when we get to the point that we’re no longer hiring people out of our community, our community begins to die,” said Patterson, who added that she fears the policy might exclude a certain class of people from getting jobs.
Patterson added that she spent over an hour with an investigator at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — the federal agency that enforces the laws pertaining to workplace discrimination.
“When kids come back they should be treated fairly,” Patterson added. “[A position on the school board] is a nonpaying position. You have a nepotism policy in place and in that policy it clearly states that if you have someone that is of kin you need to make that known, recuse yourself, so forth and so on.”
The district’ legal counsel said that he isn’t aware of any specific cases where the district, having prohibited certain people from getting hired under the new nepotism policy, would be in violation of EEOC policies.
“For clarity, the only kids we’re talking about discouraging from working here are ours while we’re board members,” said Alexander.
“This is great and I commend Wagner for being brave on this and for taking this on,” he added. “That [Chicago Tribune] newspaper article is in my phone saved […] How many children lost out because of nepotism policies and unqualified people being over them? We need to separate ourselves from that and say there is [a zero tolerance] policy here.”
Alexander also referenced the anti-nepotism policy on the books at Hinsdale Central High School.
“Last I checked, they’re not worried about lawsuits or have been sued,” Alexander said. “Hinsdale is the number one school in our conference. It has nothing to do with economics or money. It has everything to do with fairness.”
Patterson and Kelly, both of whom are longtime Maywood residents who were also staunch opponents of Welch when he was board president, said that they each know many potential candidates for positions in the district who would be disqualified from getting hired if the board adopts the nepotism policy changes.
“I had two sons who taught in District 89 for a year and one who went to Proviso West and worked in the sports program,” Kelly said, adding that none of her children are currently employed with the district.
“[My husband and I] taught them to give back at the schools for a year before starting their careers,” Kelly said, referencing her sons. “So if a person comes back and they’re qualified, they cannot get a job here? And we’re basing our policy off of a policy from a district that has million dollar homes?”
“When Hinsdale kids leave and go to college, they don’t necessarily have to return to Hinsdale,” said Patterson, who added that she wasn’t worried about anyone from her immediate family getting jobs; rather, she was worried for children in the larger community, many of whom she has mentored.
“When kids leave Maywood, Bellwood, Broadview, Berkeley and so forth, they come back […] The demographics are totally different. We are not Hinsdale,” she said.
“A lot of these people here [on this board] are new people on the board and don’t have relatives in this area,” Kelly said. “They won’t have anyone coming for a job. I’m looking at people I know in these communities who will sit in this seat one day.”
“That’s why we need this policy,” Wagner responded. “We’re not prohibiting kids from our neighborhood to come back and work [in local school districts]. If someone’s goal for getting elected to this board is to get jobs for their friends and family, then I question their motive for being on this board. This [police change] is being made for the future.”
Wagner added that the board needs to “make sure that there’s no intimidation by board members,” and that “while we don’t have an issue right now,” the policy change would “make sure that [patronage hiring] doesn’t happen in the future like it happened in the past. We want to hold this board to a higher ethical and moral standard than we had in the past.”
The board unanimously approved a first reading of the policy changes. Wagner said that members could hold a final vote on whether or not to adopt the policy changes sometime this month. VFP
The board’s nepotism policy and Wagner’s proposed changes