District 209 finance oversight panel: stronger or gone?

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By JEAN LOTUS

Updated May 8, 2012 12:45 p.m.

The Financial Oversight Panel of Proviso Township High School District 209 voted April 24 to ask the Illinois State Board of Education to increase its powers and add two members of the community to the panel.

A week later, the D209 school board called a special meeting to vote to urge the state board to disband the advisory group all together.

The contentious meeting at Proviso Math and Science Academy on Tuesday night resulted in a 4 to 3 vote to ask the state school board to dissolve the finance panel, but not without ardent comment from dissenting board members.
Board President Emanuel "Chris" Welch categorized the dissent as a holdover from his election in the Democratic primary to the 7th District.

"Heavy is the head that holds the crown," he said. "I know you're going to criticize me. Our district is in great shape."

Welch said the school board was eligible to request that the independent finance panel be dissolved since it had been in place for three years - the state minimum - and the district had balanced the budget all three years.

He also said that the district was in the top financial category of all Illinois schools and that district auditors Miller Cooper and Co. had given the district a clean audit for three years. Welch also pointed out that D209 had requested the finance panel be created voluntarily, in 2007, when the district had a deficit of $14 million.

In three years, the district balanced the budget, after cutting staff and issuing working cash bonds.

But school board members Theresa Kelly, Kevin McDermott and Readith Ester disagreed and voted against the recommendation.

Kelly read a statement saying that the district had balanced its budget "at the expense of teachers, students and the educational program in general." She pointed out that the district had test scores "well below the state averages with no upward trend." 

She also said the district had exhausted its ability to borrow more money and that reorganization would help the district qualify for short-term loans.

Finally, she said the district had made "poor management decisions" including "personnel-related lawsuits, settlements due to faulty processes and employment decisions."

She also said the board had failed to follow purchasing and contract policies.

McDermott said looming shifts from the state of pensions made the FOP even more vital in the near future. He then accused the board of "negligence and mismanagement." He claimed the board paid inflated legal fees to politically connected law firms.

McDermott also said that the board was responsible for "rampant political patronage and hiring and firing that goes on in this district including the ... principal (of Proviso East) who is the son-in-law of the board president's boss."

Tony Valente is the son-in-law of Manny Sanchez, a founding partner of the law firm Sanchez, Hoffman Daniels, where Welch works. McDermott called the Financial Oversight Panel a "necessary financial [and] moral backstop to the actions of this board."

Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart said the board's questioning the hiring of a principal undermined his effectiveness.

"It's difficult [for administrators] to work if we discredit them at this table," she said. Collins-Hart described the lengthy principal hire process "with no intervention from any persons at this table."

But Kelly responded that the board had attempted to hire Valente in the past, "and that procedure was not clean. [Collins-Hart] doesn't know the procedure is not correct, or she's in denial."

Board member Readith Ester said she was concerned that if the finance panel was dissolved and finances became a problem again, programs and technology for the students would be cut. She also voted no on the proposal.

Board member Francine Harrell, who was a paid campaign worker on Welch's state representative campaign, called the other board members' comments "disruptions and personal attacks."

"The fact that they are aired in the open is horrendous," Harrell said.

She also claimed the finance panel failed to understand the diversity of the district.

Welch said board members had made "statements and allegations that are not true." He cautioned that the board table was not a place to "throw baseless, meritless accusations."

Welch agreed with Harrell that the finance panel - a panel of three white volunteer experts in school finance - did not "reflect our district." District 209's enrollment is 58 percent black and 36 percent Hispanic. Just 3.5 percent of students in the district are white.

"They are not compassionate and considerate to our community when they question our college tours," Welch said. "They are not compassionate and caring when they question our band."

The head of the Financial Oversight Panel, James Popernik, attended the meeting, as an audience member.

"I don't know what compassion and caring is when you're looking at dollars," he said later. "If you don't have the money, how compassionate and caring should you be? We flagged those items the past few years as a question and concern. We didn't stop them, we just questioned them."
Popernik said D209 is not out of difficult times.

"There are rumblings from the state legislature don't bode well for school districts," Popernik said. "They are cutting transportation aid and shifting pension obligations to the districts. [D209 has] been balancing the budget, but not by large amounts. It still remains to be seen whether they will balance the budget this year."

Popernik said adding two community members to the finance panel under the restructuring would help address concerns that the district was in a culture clash with the panel.

Both proposals will land in Springfield this week, and the state board of education can either vote on them in their May or June meetings, or can choose to address neither one, said Popernik.

After the resolution passed, Welch told the D209 meeting that he was heading to Springfield to argue the case for dissolution and bringing the superintendent and Michael  DiBarotolo, of Del Galdo Law Group, LLC.

"Why are you bringing [DiBartolo] when he costs $200 an hour?" asked Kelly.

After the meeting, Proviso East's principal, Valente, climbed on the dais and confronted McDermott.

"He threatened to sue me," said McDermott later. "He told me I'd hear from his lawyer in the morning."

So far, McDermott has not received notice of a lawsuit, he said.

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