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.
The current nepotism policy 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.
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 which 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 a job."
The Tribune report referenced current state representative and former District 209 board president Emanuel "Chris" Welch, who had at least four relatives employed in the district.
Alexander said Wagner's proposed policy changes are necessary so 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 board 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 D209 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 and potentially put the district at risk of violating laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"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's legal counsel said 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."
Patterson and Kelly, both of whom are longtime Maywood residents who were also staunch opponents of Welch when he was board president, said 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.
"[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?"
"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 [policy change] is being made for the future."
Wagner added that the board needs to "make sure there's no intimidation by board members," and "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 members could hold a final vote on whether or not to adopt the policy changes sometime this month.