Tag: Nathan Wagner

Cook County Chronicle: D209 Board Divided Over Law Firm’s Hiring

Proviso TogetherTuesday, November 10, 2015 || Originally Published: Cook County Chronicle || By Bill Dwyer

Cracks are appearing in the coalition that just this past April took over governance of the Proviso High Schools District 209 board.

Just one week after signing a joint contract with the Robbins Schwartz and Grasso Bass law firms as its new legal counsel, the D209 board will consider an agenda item to rescind that contract.

The controversy arises as Board President Teresa Kelly asked its new legal counsel to review all district contracts.

Board member Brian Cross and Vice President Kevin McDermott say the action is necessary due to concerns about the alleged political involvement of both Robbins Schwartz and Grasso Bass principal Tony Bass, and Bass’s purported lack of educational law experience.

Cross said Saturday that the process felt “very rushed,” and that after he looked further at the new law firms, “It just didn’t smell right.”

Other members of the new board majority, including Kelly, (pictured above center) Secretary Claudia Medina (pictured above right) and Nathan “Ned” Wagner, (pictured above left), say that concern is unfounded and is a blatant attempt to “sabotage” the board’s hiring decision.

Kelly noted that Robbins Schwartz works for “65 school districts” and called them “a pioneer of school law.”

“To try to bring that (firm) down, either one of these (firms) is just wrong,” Kelly said.

Medina, who helped lead the five-month long process for the Request for Proposals that led to the selection of the law firms, said the board approved the new firm’s hiring by a 5-1 vote in late October. A contract was signed Nov. 2.

On Thursday Nov. 5, Cross’ agenda item appeared. Cross is a political loyalist to former board president Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a long-time political ally and supporter of Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico, who has ties to DelGaldo.

Cross called the process “rushed” and said, “I’m not going to get the attorney I want. (But) I just want a fair fight.”

In April, Welch’s three hand-picked school board candidates, including his wife ShawnTe, were defeated by a reform slate headed by long-time D209 board member Kelly.

DelGaldo and Associates applied for consideration in the recent selection process, but did not make the final list.

Medina said the allegation that the selection process was rushed is simply wrong.

“I’m vehemently against a board member sabotaging a five-months long process to hire a law firm. They had five months to research this,” she said.

That process, she noted, included a detailed matrix outlining the standards and qualities sought in a new legal counsel.

“No (non-majority) board member bothered to do any research on this. None,” she said.

McDermott and Cross both insisted there are legitimate concerns to discuss. McDermott said Robbins Schwartz “materially misrepresented the composition of their legal team,” saying the firm’s Bob Riley “assured us that Grasso Bass would play a minor role and Robbins Schwartz would lead the team.”

“During our interview process several board members expressed concern that the tiny law firm of Grasso Bass, whose attorneys have very little experience in school law, were part of the bid. Mr. Bob Riley of Robbins Schwartz, who presented himself as the lead attorney on the Proviso account,“ McDermott said.

“Events suggest that Robbins Schwartz takes its direction from Anthony Bass, not vice versa. This is definitely not the arrangement that many of us thought we were voting on,” he said.

“We specifically asked to not have Tony Bass,” Cross said. “Now we see he’s the main guy.” Bass, he said, “doesn’t have the educational background” needed for a large district like Proviso.

However, Kelly said Anthony Bass would have a limited role, handling only contracts and minority hiring.

Medina said the concerns over Bass’ expertise are the result of a smear campaign that started during his tenure in Thornton District 205.

Edward Crayton served as vice president of the southwest suburban Thornton High School board from 2011 to 2015. He was part of a majority opposed to the practices of then-board president Kenneth Williams, a convicted felon.

Crayton’s new majority brought in Grasso Bass and Robbins Schwartz to correct what he said were a litany of mistakes and overbilling by the previous law firm.

“I found their work to be extremely professional and extremely helpful,” Crayton said of Grasso Bass. “They helped us take a proactive approach to things.”

Of Bass himself, Crayton said, “My experience was nothing but positive.” He accused members of Williams’ board faction of spreading lies about Bass.

“Mr. Bass told them ‘no,’” Crayton said. “From that point it became a smear campaign by some members of the school board.”

McDermott also noted that Robbins Schwartz was part of the recent contracting scandal at College of DuPage, something he says he finds disqualifying.

“Although I am embarrassed to admit this, we did not conduct sufficient due diligence on this firm before selecting them,” McDermott said. “Had we done so, we would have found that they were intimately involved in the enormous financial scandal that erupted at the College of DuPage. The Chicago Tribune singled out Robbins Schwartz as a key beneficiary of the misspent money at COD.”

The Tribune article does not disclose whether the $1.6 million paid to Robbins Schwartz since 2010 (actually, $3.3 million between 2005-2015) was “misspent,” only that a member of the firm served on the college’s foundation board.

McDermott also accused Robbins Schwartz of misrepresenting their involvement in local politics. He and others, he said, “have struggled with the apparent conflict of interest presented by law firms that support slates of candidates in local elections, and the desire of the board was to find a firm that did not engage in this potential conflict of interest.”

“Yet, once again embarrassingly, a bit of too-late due diligence reveals that Robbins Schwartz is actively engaged in this type of activity, to the tune of more than $81,000 over the last span of years.

Medina said that’s just not true, saying, “We checked each of the law firms. They were no large checks like we were seeing with DelGaldo and Chris Welch. They’re trying to make small things look suspicious.”

A review of the political contributions of the law firms applying at D209 shows that all of them contribute politically to a greater or lesser degree, with Robbins Schwartz falling in the middle.

The Illinois State Board of Elections filings indicate that with two exceptions, Robbins Schwartz’s contributions were smaller than DelGaldo, who has contributed $311,080.98 since 2002. DelGaldo gave $9,387.83 to Welch-backed D209 candidates in 2013 and $8,214.14 to Welch’s D209 slate in 2015.

Robbins Schwartz’s largest donations were $10,000 in 2011 and $7,500 in 2000 to a campaign to issue bonds for improvements at Harper College in Palatine. Between 2005 and 2014 the firm made 13 contributions totaling $11,150 to Alsip Citizens for Independent Candidates. And this June it gave $5,000 to Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar’s campaign.

With the exception of a couple $1,000 contributions, the rest of their contributions since 1999 were between $200 and $600, totaling approximately $57,000 to 34 separate campaigns, with no donations to the College of DuPage.

Anthony Bass personally made regular non-major donations to several politicians and political groups between 2000 and 2013, including $5,300 to former Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore, $10,120 to the Chicago 8th Ward Democrats and $10,100 to Todd Stroger.

Kelly said she believed the motive for challenging the new legal counsel was the district’s pending review of district contracts, including all insurance fees and a 2014 no-bid contract worth $5 million.

“I asked the superintendent to direct the administrator contracts and the insurance contracts and all vendor contracts to the new law firm,” Kelly said.  “That’s what I feel they’re afraid of here,” (Bass) is going to come in and clean stuff up. He’s known for it.”

Wagner, who opined, “What I want is to stand by our choice,” said that however the board proceeds, it needs to be deliberate.

“Robbins Schwartz and Grasso Bass have not done anything to merit rescinding their contract,” he said. Noting that the board worked in “a reasoned and measured way together” to select the two law firms, Wagner said the board needs to do the same with Cross’s request.

“We’re going to pull that item from the consent agenda and we will discuss it in public,” he said. VFP

Proviso D209 Summer School Under Scrutiny; Proviso Football Coach Out; Del Galdo Law Firm Stays Put

Wednesday, July 22, 2015 || Originally Published: Forest Park Review || 7/21/15 || By Jean Lotus 

Half of enrolled students don’t finish online classwork

ProvisoEastThe school board at Proviso Township’s District 209 high schools got unhappy news July 14 about student participation in the district’s summer school program — more than half the students enrolled in online courses didn’t finish.

Kim Echols, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told the board that students would have until Oct. 1 to finish their online credit recovery. Echols said APEX computer software had been tweaked to increase the “rigor” of online classes: Students could no longer skip ahead to quizzes and tests, but had to complete lesson modules in sequence.

But the change had unintended consequences: Of 523 students enrolled, 303 didn’t finish. Of 291 Proviso West students who started the program, a total of 143 completed the coursework, and 148 stopped. Proviso East students fared even worse: 232 students took summer school, but only 77 finished the course and 155 gave up.

This is not the first Proviso summer school glitch with the APEX program. In 2013, about 50 students somehow gained access to codes which allowed them to take online final exams outside of school hours and, in some cases, finish an entire six-week class in three or four days.

APEX is also being used for credit recovery for 60 students in the district’s two evening school programs, overseen by administrators from West 40 Intermediate Service Center.

The district’s six-week summer school program was held at Proviso East, and the district spent $56,000 on portable air coolers for the building. A large percentage of students took classes on laptops purchased specifically for the summer school program.  Tracy Avant-Bey, director of information technology, told the board at its May meeting that though the laptops were purchased for summer school, they would be absorbed for later use in the school. Parents paid $100 per half-credit for students to attend summer school.

The board asked Echols to re-evaluate the program, including the use of the APEX program. Dan Adams, a school board member, asked why the district couldn’t go back to having teachers teach summer school. But member Theresa McKelvey pointed out online classes are here to stay, and are common in college level work.

Kevin McDermott, a board member, was also frustrated by the report. “[APEX], as we’re implementing it, is not working as we want it to,” McDermott said after the meeting. “We can’t afford to wait a year to try something new.”

APEX Learning charges the district $70 per student license, plus other administrative costs. The district has paid between $60,000 and 80,000 for the program in past years. The district’s contract with APEX was on the July 14 agenda, but the board put off voting because the contract had been inadvertently left out of the board book.

Alexis Wallace, a former Proviso West principal, was attending the meeting and criticized the APEX program during public comments. Wallace urged the district to look at other options such as online courses offered by Brigham Young University and the 118-year-old American School.

Del Galdo law firm stays put

Perhaps because member Claudia Medina was out of the country, the board voted in a 3 to 3 tie on a proposal to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for legal services. Before the vote, school board president Theresa Kelly said the RFP would “set a precedent that we need an RFP for everything we do.”

The vote means Del Galdo Law Group will continue with the district’s legal work. The Berwyn firm, led by Michael Del Galdo, represents seven other school boards, and more than 40 municipalities.

Veteran members Dan Adams, Brain Cross and Theresa McKelvey all voted against issuing an RFP to bid out legal services, while Kelly, Vice President Kevin McDermott and Secretary Ned Wagner voted yay.

Proviso East football coach out

In a 4 to 2 vote, the board did not renew the $8,119 contract of Proviso East Head Football Coach David Odom. Odom, a former lawyer whose Illinois law license is currently inactive, coached the team through a lackluster season, but earned praise for paying for food and supplies for players out of his own pocket.

Odom had been part of a failed proposal with Kelly’s support to attract donors to replace the artificial turf and bleachers at Proviso East. The board and Odom squabbled over who would pay for the $2,500 purchase of a “coaches uniform” delivered to his home. The district’s Financial Oversight Panel rejected the expense, and Odom ultimately reimbursed the district.

Kelly and Wagner voted to retain Odom. Kelly praised him saying he “brought in money for the students over and beyond the call of duty.”

“It will be a tremendous loss if we dismiss this person,” she said. VFP

New D209 Board Considering Moving District’s Administrative Offices from PMSA to Proviso East

Proviso East HighWednesday, May 13, 2015 || Originally Published: Forest Park Review || By Jean Lotus

New board presses district administration to be more accessible to students, parents, community members 

A change of scenery may be ahead for administrators at Proviso Township High School District 209. If the school board has its way, the district’s highest-paid professional employees may be packing up and moving north on First Avenue from the fifth-floor penthouse of the Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park to the post-fire remodeled wing of Proviso East High School in Maywood.

The board has also asked the administration to consider moving summer school classes to Proviso Math and Science Academy, which has air conditioning.

A their regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday night, the District 209 school board got a report on the newly remodeled rooms at Proviso East, which have been fully updated to include six-amp electrical service. The rooms have not been purposed as classrooms yet because of delays in construction. Building Director Ron Anderson said the high school has capacity for 3,200 students and only 1,600 are enrolled.

School board Secretary Claudia Medina said it would make sense to free up classroom space for more students at Proviso Math and Science Academy by emptying the fifth floor and moving administrative offices to East.

“Since we 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 Medina.

“We’d be talking about moving all the administrative offices to East,” added new board member Ned Wagner.

Medina asked Finance Director Todd Drafall to come up with a cost estimate to move the administrative offices. Architect Mark Legat said he would give a cost estimate per square foot to remodel the empty rooms for administrators’ use.

Until a decision is made about a move, the board asked about removing the locks on fifth-floor administrative offices.

Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart said the offices were locked with a swipe mechanism because there was not always a security guard on the floor. She said even though the building had security guards at the entrances, students had access to the fifth floor.

That didn’t sit well with Medina.

“Most schools have administration areas that are not locked, so teachers and students can come in,” she said.

Medina also said the principals’ offices in the three high schools should be at the front of the buildings, so parents could easily find them. She complained the principal’s office at Proviso East was tucked away in an obscure corner without signage.

“There’s signage on the door,” said Principal Tony Valente.

Summer school in Forest Park?

Because of construction taking place this summer at Proviso West High School, summer school classes were planned for Proviso East, which has no air conditioning and inadequate electricity for computers in the non-remodeled parts of the building.

The building staff proposed buying window-unit air conditioners and working with laptops on battery power during class time, which would be charged overnight.

PMSA is the only school building in the district with air conditioning, but a zoning ordinance in Forest Park specifies that the school cannot be used for “remedial classes.”

Medina told the board she spoke to Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone, who said he was confident the Zoning Board of Appeals would grant a variance for summer classes. She said Calderone said he might be able to meet this week to discuss the idea.

“Forest Park seems to be very open to looking and restructuring that,” Medina said.

That idea received support from board member Kevin McDermott.

“Let’s try and see if we can do it this year,” he said.

Medina said teachers and students would work better with air conditioning.

“Children who are here for summer school and need that extra help can think a lot better if they are comfortable and in a learning environment,” she said.

Medina also said the village of Forest Park was open to rezoning an empty PMSA parking lot for athletic space or a gym. Currently PMSA students who participate in sports travel to Proviso East or West.

Mayor Anthony Calderone was not immediately available to confirm Medina’s comments.

In other business, the board said it would be asking the administration to help overhaul student discipline policies and expulsion hearing process. The board divided into committees, including a student behavior committee.

“We need to have more information before we make a life-altering [discipline] hearing for a student,” said Medina.

After a wave of fights at Proviso East last October, around 10 students were suspended and expelled. Parents and grandparents came to board meetings with complaints their children’s hearings were rushed through. One suspended student, Calvin Henry, 17, was fatally shot Nov. 5, 2014 near the Prairie Path by a 16-year-old, Maywood police said.

The student behavior committee will have community members invited to participate, said board President Theresa Kelly.

Board member McDermott also asked for a request for proposals for a new school district attorney to replace the Del Galdo Law Group, though no decisikn has yet been made on whether to replace the law firm, which has represented District 209 since 2007. VFP

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