In a wide-ranging meeting Monday, the Proviso Township High School Board of Education voted to hire a lobbyist and a public relations firm and fire a law firm. Meanwhile, results of another standardized test revealed sluggish performance in the classroom.

During the otherwise routine process of approving payroll expenses, newly appointed board member Brian Cross questioned $27,600 in legal bills submitted by the Scariano, Ellch, Himes firm in Chicago. That figure far outpaced the bills submitted by five other firms for the month of June, but District 209 Superintendent Stan Fields said the Scariano firm was handling a number of personnel disputes. Fields reminded board members that only a few months ago they approved hiring the firm for the purpose of working on “special projects.”

Legal bills for the district in June totaled more than $40,300.

Cross was joined by Sue Henry and board President Chris Welch in his objections, and within minutes of highlighting the issue, the law firm was terminated by a unanimous vote. The board’s vice president, Dan Adams, was absent from the meeting.

Only moments prior and with less discussion, the board voted to re-hire the Danielle Ashley public relations firm for $10,000 a month. In similar fashion, attorney David Bonoma of David A. Bonoma and Associates was brought into the fold for $8,000 a month and will serve as the district’s lobbyist to state lawmakers.

Bonoma’s responsibilities could include efforts to secure funding and services for the district, but he said the details of the job have not yet been defined. Fields said the district’s poor academic standing coupled with the demographics of the communities it serves actually makes Proviso more attractive to public and private donors. Bonoma’s extensive contacts through the state are expected to bring in as much as $2 million a year, Fields said.

“He’s got incredible contacts,” Fields said. “I believe we use those to our advantage.”

The board is affected by actions in Springfield on several fronts, Bonoma said before the meeting, and up until this point has not been “engaged” in state and local politics. Bonoma attended the meeting but did not address the board.

District 209 will be the first and only school district represented by Bonoma. His contract was born out of conversations with the school board president, he said.

“I don’t represent other school districts,” Bonoma said.

Board member Theresa Kelly was the only person to speak on the motion to hire Bonoma, and her questions about the contract went unanswered.

“I don’t see why we need a lobbyist at a high school,” Kelly said. “How many high schools have lobbyists?”

In voting to rehire Danielle Ashley, the board again was mum on the reasons for doing so.

In 2005 the cash-strapped public high school district paid nearly $150,000 in fees to Danielle Ashley at a time when board spending was contributing to a projected $14 million deficit by the end of fiscal year 2007. While new estimates put that figure at roughly $5.1 million, according to a financial report turned over to the board at Monday’s meeting, the schools are clearly still operating in the red.

Fields, however, said after the meeting the firm will be a critical part of improving the public’s perception of Proviso high schools.

The firm and the school board have also taken criticism for a perceived quid-pro-quo relationship because of Danielle Ashley’s involvement in local elections. In early 2006, Danielle Ashley made a $5,600 in-kind contribution to Welch. Campaign records maintained by the state detail more than 70 donations made by Danielle Ashley, totaling more than $85,800.

“The fact that they donate to political campaigns, a lot of companies do that and I’m not going to exclude one because they do,” Fields said.

Meanwhile, board members were given a brief summary of student performance on a standardized test delivered to freshmen and sophomore students in April. The test is used in part to predict how well a student will perform in college.

At Proviso East High School, no more than 7 percent of the students scored in the top quartile in any of the four subject areas tested. However, anywhere from 29 to 53 percent of freshmen and sophomores scored in the bottom quartile in English, math, reading and science.

At Proviso West the scores are only moderately better with 9 percent of sophomores scoring in the top bracket in both reading and science.

Students at Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park outperformed their counterparts at East and West. More than 60 percent of sophomores scored in the highest quartile in science and no more than 3 percent of students tested fell into the lowest quartile in any of the four subject areas.

District 209 school board member pledges vigilance

Forest Park resident and District 209 board member Bob Cox stopped short of issuing an apology to taxpayers, but said recently he has made some poor choices just three months into his four-year term.

“I made some errors,” Cox said. “I’ll admit it.”

Following his July 9 vote against the appointment of a politically connected Westchester resident to replace former board member Charles Flowers, Cox said he is beginning to see flaws in how the board operates. Cox blamed his own naïve dependence on other board members to provide him with a complete set of facts for his errant votes. He declined to name those board members he turned to for guidance, but said in the future he will be more aggressive in seeking information.

“We’ve got to stop pretending that it isn’t political when two-thirds of the board are working for the county (recorder of deeds office),” Cox said.

Newly appointed board member Brian Cross is an employee of Cook County Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore. Moore’s chief of staff, Sue Henry, is also a District 209 board member.

Board President Chris Welch is not an employee of Moore’s, though the two travel in the same political circles.

In June, Cox voted with Welch to approve a no-bid contract in violation of the board’s own code and against the superintendent’s recommendation. At the same meeting, Cox helped award an insurance brokerage contract for which no costs or services were defined. That measure too, was supported by Welch.

Welch did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The search process through which Cross was appointed was shortened from the statutorily allowed 45 days to just four days. A federal holiday, the Fourth of July, also fell within the search period. In addition to Cross, two other applicants were interviewed, but Cox said those candidates never would have come forward had he not called them personally and encouraged them to apply.

“We would have had just that one person,” Cox said. “Make no mistake, that (search) period was set by the board president. The superintendent was not responsible for that.”

Linda Howard and Kevin McDermott, both of Westchester, were the other Proviso Township residents to apply for the seat.

“I’ve got to commit to my term and buckle down,” Cox said.

– Josh Adams