District 209 Board of Education President Chris Welch made his run for Karen Yarbrough’s 7th District State Representative seat official during an announcement ceremony last Friday in Maywood.
Welch attempted to frame himself as a “proven leader” based on his record at Dist. 209, and promised to secure additional funding for schools in Springfield by demanding that the lottery and casino revenues be applied to education rather than the general fund.
“While every special interest group believes their funding agenda is worthy of full support, I believe the number one funding agenda in which we all have a special interest is the education of our children.”
Critics are sure to question his devotion to responsible spending, as Dist. 209 is currently operating at a deficit last estimated by former superintendent Greg Jackson at $14 million. Despite an operating expenditure of $14,092 per pupil, just slightly lower than Oak Park and River Forest High School’s $14,201, Dist. 209 students consistently test among the worst in the state.
The district recently spent nearly all of a $40 million bond to build the new Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA), which Welch and his peers have admitted might require a referendum in the near future.
Before leading the fight for the current magnet school, Welch vehemently opposed a previous magnet school proposal which would have cost only $15 million. “We cannot afford to engage in the practice of building buildings on faith because we run the risk of that blank check coming back to us marked ‘insufficient funds,'” he wrote in a letter to the Review in 2001.
In his campaign platform, Welch also vows to fight for changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, to better assess academic progress, to offer incentives, including loan forgiveness to teachers who work in underprivileged districts, and to make Dist. 209’s Take Your Parents to School Day a statewide initiative.
Welch also promised to take a tough stance against crime by fighting to close gun show loopholes, supporting walking patrol and beat representative programs in areas surrounding schools and increasing educational programs on the dangers of drug abuse.
In his written campaign platform, Welch, who has often been criticized for overlooking longtime Dist. 209 employees in favor of connected outsiders, cites the opening of PMSA as an example of his devotion to creating jobs within the community.
If elected state rep, the document states, Welch would fight for tax breaks for companies that open businesses in economically disadvantaged communities and will secure funding to enable school districts to build more schools.
The ceremony at Mariella’s Banquet Hall on Fifth Avenue was attended by many of Welch’s political allies, including Dist. 209 board members Sue Henry and Shirley Madlock, Cook County Recorder of Deeds and Proviso Democratic Committeeman Eugene Moore, Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico, Hillside Mayor Joe Tamburino and Proviso Township Trustee Don Sloan.
During the event, Welch made no effort to hide the alliances that have given fuel to his critics in the past. Moore, who became the center of controversy at Dist. 209 earlier this year when Welch and the board majority voted to hire his unregistered, one-man insurance brokerage firm EMM and Associates as the district’s broker of record, told the crowd that he first met Welch as his family’s insurance broker when Chris was a child.
Moore reminisced on his experiences on Proviso East’s football team, when Serpico’s father, Ralph “Babe” Serpico, a former Proviso Democratic Committeeman and, according to a recent Sun-Times reports, a twice-convicted felon, would reward him with money each time he scored a touchdown.
Ron Serpico, who called Welch “one of the greatest young men I’ve had the good fortune to meet in my life,” was ordered last year to pay $1 million in punitive damages after a jury determined that he and Jackson had conspired to fire Proviso East Building Manager Generoso Trombetta for political reasons.
Welch was among the board members who voted for the firing, but denied that politics were involved.
Welch acknowledged that some of his moves at Dist. 209 have been controversial, but said he is anxious to prove his critics wrong. “I’m ready to fight for the community I grew up in,” he said. “I don’t care about the negative criticism that comes with the job because it comes with the job.”
Yarbrough, who Welch has said is not a “real Democrat” and is not sufficiently devoted to education, has been in office since 2001. She serves on the state’s insurance committee and chairs the House Committee on Housing and Urban Development. Her husband, Henderson Yarbrough, is the Mayor of Maywood.