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Recent personnel moves in the maintenance department at District 209 have led school board members critical of the board majority to declare that highly paid custodial jobs are being distributed as rewards for political support.

The most recent of these was the promotion of Angelo Calgagno from electrician to building manager at Proviso West at a salary of $72,000. The action was taken at the school board’s September meeting.

During school board elections earlier this year, Calgagno had spent several weekends campaigning for board President Chris Welch’s Students First Party, distributing literature and representing the party at public events.

“Neither Chris Welch nor any other board member plays any role in the hiring process,” said Welch, noting that he had never conducted nor sat in on an interview during his time on the board.

After similar concerns were raised by board member Theresa Kelly during the board’s Sept. 15 meeting, Welch asked District 209 Chief Education Officer Robert Libka whether any member of the Students First Party had played a role in his recommending the hiring, to which he responded that they had not.

He said the hires were instead based on “impeccable credentials.”

Still, Kelly and other opponents of the Students First Party are unconvinced that the hirings and the campaigning are not connected.

“I wouldn’t even call it a chess game ” it’s checkers at best,” said board member Charles Flowers. “The game is to bombard the district with jobs for people who will do their political bidding.”

Heightening such suspicions is a promotion given to Jose Santiago, the man who Calgagno replaced, at the previous board meeting.

Santiago, who had in the past been disciplined by former Superintendent Gregory Jackson for distributing campaign materials for the Students First Party on school grounds during school hours, was appointed director of facilities for the district at a salary of $85,000.

Welch said he could not talk to the press about personnel issues such as past disciplinary action, but that Santiago’s hiring also “had nothing to do with politics.”

The maintenance department was brought to the forefront of the many ongoing controversies at District 209 in August, when Welch voted along with the board majority to hire his brother, Billy Welch, as a night custodian at Proviso West.

At the time, many were surprised to see the salaries of Billy Welch and several other custodians listed on the agenda at over $46,000.

These salaries were actually standard for District 209. Custodians’ pay has long been a topic of debate at the district, as both present and past board members have been accused of offering high paid maintenance jobs in exchange for campaign work.

According to the current union contract, which runs from 2005 to 2009, the district’s regular day custodians will make $45,806 this school year, while night custodians will make $46,251. By 2008-09, the last year of the current contract between the school board and the custodians, represented by Service Employees International Union Local No. 73 (SEIU 73), night custodians will be making over $52,000, with their daytime counterparts just behind at $51,525.68.

Maintenance personnel make 75 percent of the listed salary for their position during their first year of employment, and work their way up to their full salary after four years.

The salaries for regular day and night custodians, however, are actually at the bottom of the district’s maintenance salary scale. Immediately above them are washroom attendants, who will make over $47,000 this year.

Athletic equipment custodians this year will make $49,046, while athletic equipment managers, along with receiving clerks, will make $53,675. By 2008, they’ll be making $60,377.

Welch said that no board members are present during contract negotiations. Instead, District 209 Attorney Mark Sterk represents the board.

Still, critics point out Sterk and his law firm Odelson and Sterk are known Welch supporters, having donated $3,000 to his party during their last campaign. This, along with the numerous maintenance workers who have done political work for Welch, his party and his political allies including Democratic Committeeman Eugene Moore, has led critics to believe that he does exert some influence over the negotiations.

“That department has traditionally been utilized as a political grounds for getting the vote out for board members looking to get reelected,” said Flowers.

In addition, critics say, political hires have led to poor quality of work. “A lot of people feel they’re connected and they don’t have to work,” said Kelly.

Kelly said that maintenance salaries have often led to complaints from teachers, who are paid significantly less.

Welch acknowledged the concern, but said that the new contract for teachers signed this year made progress in solving the problem.

“I believe we are significantly addressing the issues that have been going on in this district for quite some time,” he said.

District 209 would not release a copy of the new contract to the Review as all of its terms had not yet been finalized.

The old contract, which expired in 2004, granted teachers with bachelor’s degrees a starting salary of $34,950. Those with master’s degrees started at $38,713, while those with Ph.D.s started at $43,230.