Out of the 66 items on the agenda at the Proviso High School District 209 school board meeting Monday night, the one that drew the most attention was the one that was not even voted upon.
That item was a proposal to remove the law firm Odelson and Sterk as the school district’s general counsel and replace them with the firm Giglio and Del Galdo, LLP.
At the outset of the meeting, after emerging from a closed session meeting that lasted nearly two hours, board President Chris Welch announced that the item had been pulled from the agenda at the request of board member Gary Marine.
Over Marine’s objections, Welch said that he would allow public comment regarding the issue during the portion of the meeting typically reserved for comment concerning items on the agenda. Burt Odelson of Odelson and Sterk then proceeded to blast Marine, who requested that the item be placed on the agenda in the first place.
“I would ask Mr. Marine, who exactly are these guys, Giglio and Del Galdo,” he said, referencing a Chicago Tribune article published last Friday which reported that the same firm had been paid $1.5 million in legal fees by the town of Cicero since last May.
Odelson distributed copies of the Tribune article to the members of the board at the outset of the meeting.
Odelson and Sterk have themselves achieved some notoriety for their legal fees, charging Dist. 209 over $88,000 during the 2004-05 school year and over $202,000 in 2003-04, according to documents obtained by the Review through the Freedom of Information Act last year.
Still, Odelson told the board that his firm had saved the school district over $1 million in comparison to its previous attorneys.
“Those of you who know us know we pledged to reduce attorney’s fees, and we did cut them in half,” he said.
Odelson also took credit for providing detailed bills which were made accessible to the media. In Cicero, Giglio and Del Galdo have been criticized for vague billing, while the town has been accused of failing to make the bills accessible.
After the meeting, Marine said he felt he had been “set up.”
“I was led to believe that Welch was behind [the lawyer swap],” he said.
Asked why he had placed the item on the agenda in the first place, Marine, one of the three board members who typically votes against Welch’s majority, said “I thought it was a good idea at the time but it’s not,” and then quickly left the room.
Speculation was rampant concerning why exactly the item was placed on the agenda in the first place. One popular theory was that Marine was pressured to support the swap so that the board could have a majority vote without Welch having to burn bridges with a firm that has supported him over the years. Another, voiced by Maywood resident Lula Greenhow, was that the board minority wanted to fire Odelson and Sterk as revenge for their work on the termination of former Superintendent Greg Jackson last July.
Both law firms involved in the dispute are certainly well connected. Evergreen Park-based Odelson and Sterk, according to records on file with the Illinois State Board of Elections, has made nearly $182,000 in political contributions since 1999.
These contributions have included thousands of dollars to Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico, a major backer of Welch and his ally Eugene Moore in their political campaigns, as well as multiple large donations to Orland Hills Mayor Kyle Hastings, who is employed at Dist. 209 as Director of Auxiliary Programs.
Welch and Moore have also received generous support from the firm, as did previous board President Theresa Kelly, who first brought them on board at Dist. 209. The firm has made no secret of their allegiance to the board majority, with attorney Mark Sterk once telling the Review to take statements made by other board members “with a grain of salt.”
Westchester-based Giglio and Del Galdo have not been quite as prolific with their contributions in general, though its two named partners have contributed nearly $15,000 to Serpico’s campaigns. The firm serves as general counsel for Melrose Park.
“I thought the whole thing was staged, to be real honest with you,” said board member Charles Flowers. “It was a test to see who was aligned with who.” As for his own position on the matter, Flowers said, “I was all for firing [Odelson and Sterk] but I certainly wasn’t interested in bringing in more crooked people.”
Though the attorney swap appeared on the final meeting agenda distributed at Monday night’s board meeting, there was no mention of the item on a copy of the agenda posted and faxed to the Review on Friday, April 21.
Welch could not be reached for comment before press time.
Also at the meeting:
The board voted to set the school district’s summer school schedule to begin June 12 and end July 20. Summer school will cost $105 per course for students in the district and $210 for out-of-district students, while faculty will receive $4,000 per teacher.
A proposal to eliminate free summer school for students who are obligated to attend summer school due to failing grades was withdrawn after it was met with resistance from the board last month.
Rumors that circulated throughout the week regarding a shakeup of the board’s structure proved baseless, as the board voted to keep Dan Adams as its Vice President and Sue Henry as its secretary.