A cross-section of township residents bent on pressuring federal, state and local officials to wipe out the corruption they say plagues the public high schools have begun laying the groundwork for a grassroots movement.
But for all the steam carried into the group’s first meeting, held last week on the heels of Superintendent Stan Fields’ July 30 suspension, a question exists whether the range of political and socio-economic backgrounds will be a hindrance or a help.
“It will be interesting to see how they coalesce and bring some change,” Forest Park Commissioner Marty Tellalian said after sitting in on the discussion. “They’re unanimous in the need for change.”
Among the roughly 30 community members assembled in a meeting room at the Forest Park Public Library were residents from Proviso’s wealthiest and poorest communities. District 209 employees, past and present, elected officials and parents were represented by black and white faces from a school district still scarred by the race-fueled riots of the late 1960s.
Linda Howard, a Westchester resident, who was passed over in July when she applied to fill a vacancy on the school board, told the packed room that simply banding together will make an impression on board members. A united front that pulls from all corners of the district’s 10 municipalities is a message in and of itself, Howard said.
Those in attendance repeatedly acknowledged that there is strength in both numbers and diversity as they brainstormed ways to begin holding the school board accountable. Allegations of mismanagement, financial impropriety, patronage and a general failure to efficiently run Dist. 209’s three high schools were aimed at the school board throughout the almost three-hour meeting. Particularly scathing were the criticisms reserved for board President Chris Welch.
But fractures in the fledgling organization were also apparent. Though the board’s decision late last month to put the superintendent on paid administrative leave served as a rallying point, participants were divided in their allegiance to restoring Fields to office.
Kevin McDermott of Westchester, who ran for the Dist. 209 school board this past spring, suggested the group at least temporarily abandon focusing on Fields until a more uniform position can be taken.
“There are plenty of other issues we agree on,” McDermott said.
School board members have refused to comment on the reasons for sanctioning Fields, stating they are unable to discuss personnel matters. The suspension is expected to remain in place, pending the outcome of a termination hearing.
In a telephone interview just hours before the residents gathered on Aug. 8, Fields said he still had not been informed of the allegations against him. He said he was not aware of any complaints filed against him by district employees, students or parents to substantiate his suspension, nor were there any pressing concerns raised by board members during a performance review in June.
“There was nothing in that discussion in the board’s review of my performance that would lead to my being placed on paid administrative leave,” Fields said, adding that he is in the process of hiring an attorney.
Della Patterson is a former Dist. 209 employee who said she worked with pregnant teenagers for nearly 18 years until she was fired several months ago. She’s resentful of Fields for recommending the action to the school board and is reluctant to see him brought back. However, Patterson said her real beef is with the board president, whom she accused of playing politics with the livelihood of district employees. For years, she has been an outspoken critic of Welch and said it’s understandable if others employed in the district are hesitant to stand with her in opposition to him.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get employees,” Patterson said of the group’s recruiting efforts. “That’s why I’m out of a job right now. It’s very political.”
Patterson added that she is fighting her termination through the district’s internal hearings process.
Bill Kirchner, a Forest Park resident and the father of a sophomore at the Proviso Math and Science Academy, was largely responsible for organizing the meeting and said after years of following the district’s antics, he was stunned by the decision to sanction Fields. In recent years, Kirchner said he has observed a pattern of “malfeasance” at the board level, which includes two recent multi-million-dollar referendums used to construct the school his son attends.
“To say that I’m outraged, that’s an understatement,” Kirchner said.
Also a member of the village’s planning commission, Kirchner pointed to statements Welch made in June as being offensive to the people he is elected to serve. After voting June 18 to approve two no-bid contracts, Welch told the Review: “The public doesn’t understand what happens at these board meetings. That’s just the nature of what we do.”
Welch did not return a phone call seeking comment on the budding activist group.
Dist. 209 board member Bob Cox attended the meeting briefly in a show of support, but was also criticized by participants for voting alongside Welch and others in the majority who stand accused of corruption. Cox, who was elected this April, offered his suspicions that the board has violated the Open Meetings Act as a possible foothold to begin holding board members accountable.
Those who attended the meeting at the library discussed plans to attend the school board’s next meeting en masse on Aug. 20.