D209 shuffles administrators to comply with demands

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By SETH STERN

A Monday night meeting of the District 209 Board of Education was not without its share of controversy, as board and audience members repeatedly questioned many of the 51 items on the agenda.

In the end, however, the outrage did not affect the outcome, as 50 of those items passed, many in 4-3 votes.

Among those items was a shuffling of the district's superintendent position, intended to bring the district into compliance with regional standards. Interim Superintendent Robert Libka, who does not have the State's endorsement necessary to serve as a superintendent, was made the district's "Chief Education Officer."

Libka was hired at the previous board meeting on July 18 to replace Greg Jackson, who was terminated by the board in a 4-3 vote, leading Cook County Regional Superintendent Bob Ingraffia to call for him to be replaced by a qualified candidate.

Libka said that Ingraffia had told him that the change in title would suffice to bring the district into compliance.

"If they have someone in there that is listed as superintendent, they can have anybody they want work with them," said Ingraffia.

Dissenting board members Charles Flowers and Theresa Kelly both questioned the move. "Why are we creating another level at the top of an already top-heavy administration?" asked Flowers.

Dr. Phylistine Murphy, a former superintendent of Bellwood School District 88 who is currently serving as a trustee in Bellwood, was made superintendent. Murphy had been hired at the last board meeting as an assistant superintendent for Operations and Technology.

In a statement to the audience, Welch said that the district had changed the administrators' titles, but not their responsibilities. Murphy, he said, would continue to direct the district's technological decisions, while Libka would continue his duties as de facto superintendent.

Murphy said she had not been informed of any changes in her job description other than now be signing documents that require the superintendent's signature.

Another controversial move was the hiring of EMM & Associates as broker of record for the district's Blue Cross-Blue Shield benefits plan.

Kelly and Flowers as well as audience member Lucille Redmond repeatedly asked if anyone in the room knew what EMM stood for and why their services were necessary.

"How can the board vote on an agenda item when they don't know what the acronym stands for?" asked Redmond.

Review opinion columnist Carl Nyberg, who attended the meeting as a concerned taxpayer, resolved some of the confusion regarding the acronym by announcing to the crowd that "the Democratic committeeman [referring to Cook County Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore] told me before the meeting that it was his company. ... Is that a secret?"

Welch told Nyberg that he was "speaking out of line," as the standard procedure is to fill out a form and wait to be called upon to address the board.

None of the board members or administrators, however, commented on why they had not mentioned that the company belonged to Moore, who contributed $5,000 to Welch's last campaign through EMM.

Lipka chose not to comment on whether he suspected that any kickbacks were involved in the hiring, but said he felt that he had done the right thing by allowing the board to vote on the matter.

Libka said that the company would negotiate costs and ensure that the district was receiving the best possible rates and programs. He noted that the district had worked with several similar brokers in the past.

EMM will receive payment at a rate not to exceed 2.5 percent of the premium for 2006. Though Libka said that the payments would come from Blue Cross-Blue Shield, a 2004 invoice obtained by the Review showed that a similar payment of $123,000 to EMM for brokerage services was made by the district.

Libka acknowledged that it seemed odd that Blue Cross-Blue Shield would pay for somebody to negotiate costs with them and potentially recommend that they be replaced by another company, but said he had spoken with Blue Cross representatives who had assured him that this was standard practice for "at least 50 percent" of school districts in Illinois.

During the meeting, Flowers asked whether EMM and Associates was registered as an insurance brokerage firm. Libka responded that he had been informed by representatives at Blue Cross-Blue Shield that the company was licensed.

A call to the Cook County Clerk's office and a search of the Secretary of State's website did not reveal a licensed insurance brokerage company under the name EMM and Associates.

Also at the board meeting:

•  Relatives of two board majority members were given jobs at Proviso schools. Shavonne K. Henry, daughter of board member Sue Henry, was hired as secretary to the director of the Magnet School Assistance Program for a salary of $35,000.

Kelly asked that Henry not vote on the hiring due to a conflict of interest. Welch asked District 209 Attorney Mark Sterk if he saw a problem with Henry voting, and Sterk said he did not.

Later in the meeting, Welch's brother, Billy W. Welch, was hired as a night custodian at Proviso West. Though the original meeting agenda faxed to the Review last Friday listed Welch's salary at $34,688.44, the version voted on at the meeting had his salary, along with those of three other custodians, at $46,251.25.

Libka was not aware of the change when interviewed following the meeting. After reviewing both agendas, he acknowledged that the increase was "a big jump," but said the intention was not to "pull a fast one."

Though Kelly and Flowers said they were not informed of the change before the meeting, Libka produced a copy of a sheet of revisions that included the salary changes, which he said board members received on Friday.

Welch noted that several past board members had relatives on Proviso's payroll.

•  Dist. 209 Teenage Parenting Program coordinator and former school board candidate Arbdella "Della" Patterson accused the district of moving her office as an act of political retribution for running against the board majority in last April's elections.

Patterson said that on Thursday, just days after she was suddenly moved to an office measuring just over 100 square feet with no windows or ventilation, she was brought to the emergency room and treated for inhalation of toxic fumes.

She said that doctors had instructed her to no longer enter the office, and she spent Friday meeting with students in the hallway. She said she feared that the office might have posed a health hazard to pregnant girls who had stopped in during the week.

"There are unborn fetuses that have to come in here," she said.

She said that the office is vastly inadequate for her needs, as she often works with several girls at once and even gives Lamaze classes.

Proviso West Principal Alexis Wallace said that Patterson was moved as part of a restructuring designed to ensure that every building in Proviso West be staffed with a dean, and that 16 other employees were moved as well.

• The board voted to hire a total of 53 teachers, 20 of whom have no previous teaching experience.

Responding to questions from audience members regarding the new hires, Libka said that, "once we create a positive atmosphere for the district, (experienced teachers) will want to join."

Human Resources Manager Patricia Imburgia explained that for many of the new hires, teaching was a second career. She said that all the new teacherswere certified for their subject.

• The one agenda item that was voted down was a motion to pay the George Sollitt Construction Company $273,000 for taping and dry wall work at the new Math and Science Academy.

In a rare case of dissent among the board majority, Shirley Madlock abstained from voting on the item.

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