The Proviso Township Board of Education voted 4-3 to fire Superintendent Gregory Jackson at a special meeting called last Thursday, ending Jackson’s 5-year tenure just nine months after voting to extend his contract through 2009.
The board voted to hire Robert Libka, District 209’s director of Auxiliary Programs since 2002 and a math teacher at Proviso since 1999, as Jackson’s interim replacement.
Though the meeting lasted all of seven minutes, the tensions, controversies and legal battles brought on by the board’s decisions are likely far from over.
Board President Chris Welch framed Jackson’s dismissal as a response to Dist. 209’s perpetually low standardized test scores, calling 209 “a broken district.”
He told the packed meeting room that “as Mr. Jackson was hired several years ago to address the financial conditions of Dist. 209, in 2005, the district must now hire a superintendent who will aggressively address the plight of education in our three high schools.”
Welch also told the Review that the board had been upset by Jackson’s alleged habit of passing over part-time Dist. 209 employees for full-time job consideration in favor of outsiders, leading to complaints from union representatives that they had violated union protocols.
Opposition says move is political
Others, however, felt that the decision was politically motivated and that Jackson was being used a scapegoat for problems that preceded his time as superintendent.
“If test scores were the issue, why not wait until the ISAT scores come back? This is about contracts, money and taking care of political friends. That’s it,” said board member Charles Flowers, who voted against firing Jackson along with Theresa Kelly and Gary Marine.
Flowers said that Jackson was fired for working with the full board rather than merely carrying out the will of Welch’s majority Students First Party, which he said “have been bought out and are in it as thick as thieves.”
Flowers wrote a letter to the board about two months ago asking to hold a meeting to discuss severing ties with developer Anthony Bruno, who has been under investigation since 2003 for his role in a controversial $42 million water project in Melrose Park.
According to Flowers, Jackson had finally placed a discussion of Bruno on the agenda for the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on July 18, which was not held because the board majority skipped the meeting in order to plan Thursday’s actions.
When the regular meeting was rescheduled for July 25, after Jackson’s firing, Bruno, who has served as project manager for a Forest Park water project and is working as a co-project director for Proviso’s new magnet school project, was no longer on the agenda.
Welch also mentioned a $123,000 insurance payment made by the board to Welch ally and Democratic Committeeman Gene Moore, questioning why such decisions had been made by the board president rather than the superintendent.
Asked about the payment, Moore said that insurance was his business and was completely separate from his status as an elected official.
Jackson said he could not yet comment on why he thought he was fired or whether political motives were involved. He acknowledged that low test scores were a problem, but said that “test scores don’t reflect where the kids are when they come to us and how are they progressing. They just measure are you where other students are.”
In 2004, 23.2 percent of Proviso students met or exceeded state standards on standardized tests, compared to 26.1 percent in 2003 and 62.4 percent statewide.
The crowd’s response on Thursday was almost as divided as the board. Many stood and applauded when the meeting adjourned, but others could be heard muttering their disapproval when Welch either ignored or dismissed questions from his opposition on the board during the meeting.
Welch said that the hostility evident at Thursday’s meeting is a result of name-calling and unprofessional behavior by his opposition. Following the meeting, Flowers referred to the board’s majority as “idiots” and called Welch “a puppet” for Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico.
Board member Theresa Kelly, however, said that the majority were the ones being unprofessional by not reaching out to the rest of the board or allowing Jackson a chance to defend himself before making their decision.
Kelly said she found out about the plans to fire Jackson when she received a notice Tuesday morning, after the majority had sat out Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting. Flowers called the majority’s decision to sit out the meeting and reschedule it without notifying the public in advance “a slap in the face.”
Extension to be contested
She said that before voting to terminate Jackson, the board should have conducted a superintendent review to evaluate his performance, adding that without the stability provided by an experienced superintendent, the district “will hit rock bottom.”
Welch said it was unnecessary to allow Jackson to defend himself since the board would be buying out the remainder of Jackson’s current contract, which expires in 2007. The board proposed to pay Jackson’s salary of $167,000 for two years, compensating him for unused sick and vacation days, and paying the remainder of his contracted insurance payments.
The total lump sum payout, payable by Aug. 15, would be $402,629.50, with a $15,000 bonus if the magnet school opens in August.
The board also voted to contest the validity of Jackson’s last contract extension, which the board approved in a 4-3 vote on Nov. 15, 2004. That extension expires in 2009.
Welch said that the proposal to extend Jackson’s contract was brought to the board on Nov. 12, giving the board insufficient time to consider whether Jackson had met performance goals stated in his original contract, including raising test scores.
Welch said that upon gaining the board’s majority after the school board elections in April, he and his colleagues on the board intended to contest the extension immediately, but were advised by lawyers to hold off until they had determined that their arguments were likely to be upheld in court.
The board will be represented by attorney John B. Murphey, of the law firm Rosenthal, Murphey, Coblentz & Janega, which also serves as general council for several villages including Rosemont, Deerfield, and Fox River Grove.
Welch said that Murphey was recommended by Dist. 209 attorney Mark Sterk.
Jackson said that his contract extension explicitly stated that he had met his performance goals, and has retained attorney Edward Copeland to prove it in court.
“We believe we have a valid contract signed by the board of education it is very specific that I had met all of my goals … it was approved in a regular meeting and the vote was 4-3, and it is signed by Mr. Welch,” Jackson said.
Despite repeated requests from the Review, Copeland did not send the paper a copy of the extension in question.
Interim’s qualifications questioned
Another source of controversy is the hiring of Libka, who despite extensive experience in education and a Type 75 General Administrative Endorsement, does not hold a Superintendent’s Endorsement from the State of Illinois, leading some to question why Jackson was replaced by someone they see as less qualified.
When Flowers brought up this concern during the meeting, Welch accused him of “playing games.”
Welch told the Review that Libka, a resident of Maywood, was selected because of his demeanor and his experience with Dist. 209, and emphasized that Libka is only being hired on an interim basis.
He said that a permanent superintendent would be hired after a thorough search which will include consulting with committees of students, teachers, and other concerned parties, but said that this search could take until Spring of 2006.
Libka, who will be paid $150,000 per year, said he is currently in the process of acquiring the endorsement.
In addition to Libka, the board also voted to hire Bellwood Trustee Dr. Phyllistine as interim assistant superintendent for Technology and Operations at a salary of $125,000 and Orland Hills Mayor Kyle Hastings, currently an athletic director and special education teacher at Proviso West, as interim director of Auxiliary Programs at a salary of $100,000.
The Village of Orland Hills is a client of Welch’s law firm, James J. Roche and Associates, and Hastings has received campaign contributions from John B. Murphey, the attorney representing Dist. 209.
Though hiring is usually done by the superintendent, Welch said the board took matters into its own hands to ensure that no time is wasted with schools scheduled to open Aug. 16. He said that all hires were based on “impeccable education credentials,” and that their status as elected officials was not a factor.