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By Mariel E. Demler, Special from the West Suburban Journal

The board of education for District 88 has voted to place Superintendent Dr. Willie Mack on paid administrative leave pending a hearing to determine further action. The move continued a string of superintendents within the Proviso community being removed from duty, with three similar moves occurring in this past year alone.

In July, Proviso High School District 209’s superintendent Greg Jackson was fired in a controversial 4-3 vote, and this month saw Jackson’s former Assistant Superintendent and current Dist. 209 Deputy Superintendent Kevin Gilchrist placed on paid administrative leave.

Mack himself took over as interim superintendent for Dist. 88 when his predecessor, Dr. Rebecca Montoya-Kostro, was voted out last April by the same board.

The District 88 school board’s attorney is Chris Welch, who also serves as Dist. 209’s school board president. Welch previously made headlines at Dist. 88 in November, when the Forest Park Review revealed that he had been paid over $184,000 in legal fees by the district since being reappointed as its attorney in April.

The announcement of Mack’s termination was made during a school board meeting Thursday night, where the board voted 4-2 in open session to remove Mack, effective immediately.

Former Maywood-Melrose Park District 89 superintendent Dr. Drew Starsiak was named as Mack’s successor.

Tensions ran high throughout the course of the proceedings, with the board quite obviously divided between those in support of Dr. Mack and those who favored change.

The meeting’s written agenda was full of holes, often making it difficult for parents and taxpayers in attendance to follow what was going on. Many quickly lost patience with the way business was being conducted, resulting in several outbursts outside of the organized audience participation session.

Board Vice President Maria Ramirez Castrejon, who conducted the meeting when President Althea Busby excused herself from duty, assured the audience that policy prevented the board from discussing personnel matters in public.

Busby, who is employed at Dist. 209 as Kelvin Gilchrist’s assistant, did not cast a vote. Instead, Welch sat in the board president’s chair after Castrejon requested that he assist her in conducting the meeting.

There was a consensus among many in attendance, including board member John Wicks, that it was a conspiracy against Mack and not any evidence of misconduct that lead directly to Mack’s suspension.

Many heads have turned once again towards Welch, who has been accused of involvement in the other firings and of rearranging leadership within the districts for personal and political gain. Welch is currently campaigning for a position as State Representative for the 7th District.

“I see Chris Welch all over this one,” said James Graham Sr., a former Director of Facilities for District 88 who was also fired from his position this year.

“This is called self preservation at its best ” all these people (who have been fired or suspended) have information on Chris Welch that can destroy him before his state rep race,” said Dist. 209 board member Charles Flowers. He noted that Jackson has been largely silent since he was fired in July in an effort not to interfere with pending litigation regarding his contract.

Circumstances preceding the meeting to fire Mack also bore a resemblance to Jackson’s firing. The Thursday night meeting was originally scheduled for Monday, but was postponed after members of the board majority claimed the board packets sent to them were missing agendas. According to Flowers, members of the board minority said they had received their agendas, and that the original agenda did not include Mack’s suspension.

Before Jackson’s termination, the Dist. 209 board majority boycotted the board’s regularly scheduled meeting and then called a special meeting to fire Jackson, leading to accusations of a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

With Mack on leave, Dist. 88 will now pay the salaries of both Mack and Starsiak. Dist. 209 will be paying Jackson’s salary at least until his contract expires in 2007, and depending on the outcome of ongoing litigation might end up paying him until 2009 when his most recent contract extension expires.

Starsiak was fired from Maywood-Melrose Park Dist. 89 in 2002, with a lack of productivity in raising student achievement cited as the major deal-breaker. He had served as superintendent since 1995.

Flowers, who voted for Starsiak’s firing when he was board president at Dist. 89, was very critical of Starsiak’s work. “I’ve worked with the man,” said Flowers. “And this, this is bad news for our district.”

The motion passed Thursday night to place Mack on leave went into effect immediately, leaving some parents feeling that they had no say in deciding their children’s futures.

“We elect you,” said Dist. 88 parent Danielle Smith. “Don’t send us the message that we elect you, and then our voices don’t count.”

Starsiak, Mack and Welch were unavailable for comment at the printing of this story.

Seth Stern contributed to this report.