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A school board vote in Proviso Township High School District 209 last week ended in a tie, scuttling the superintendent’s recommendation to hire an Arizona firm that would work with teachers and staff to improve the curriculum and its delivery.

The cost of the proposed contract would have exceeded $581,000, according to a memo from Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart.

Earlier in the month, board members and administrators discussed a series of deep cost-cutting measures that could give the cash-strapped schools a year-end balance of about $40,000. Through the school year administrators have warned board members that the operating budget had a deficit of $5.9 million built into it.

Though it is possible for the district to end the year with a positive fund balance, Collins-Hart has said that classrooms will likely be impacted by the level of cuts needed.

Following the board’s vote, Collins-Hart released a statement that she was disheartened by the board’s decision.

“I am certainly disappointed that we will not be able to implement this school improvement model,” Collins-Hart said in an e-mail to the Review. “However we will continue to look for the right programs and initiatives to fit the needs of our students and our district.”

The cost of hiring the firm, Evans Newton Incorporated, could have reached $1.2 million over two years, but the additional work would have only been agreed to if the district could find grant money to pay for it. Administrators also hoped the initial term of the proposed contract would be paid for with grant money, according to a district spokesperson. Two possible grants were identified as part of the proposal, one being a school improvement grant recently issued to Proviso East. District officials were also working with the U.S. Department of Education to pin down a third funding source, a Magnet School Assistance Program grant, which would have covered the entire contract.

Board members Robert Cox, Sue Henry and Theresa Kelly voted in favor of hiring the firm. Board President Chris Welch, Brian Cross and Vice President Daniel Adams voted against the recommendation.

Board member Robin Foreman was absent the Dec. 15 meeting.

After the meeting, Welch said that his primary reason for opposing the contract was the cost. During the board’s discussion, though, he criticized Kelly for attending an expenses-paid symposium in January that was hosted by Evans Newton.

“Would you feel the same way if you didn’t go on an all expenses paid trip,” Welch asked Kelly during the meeting.

Later, Welch expanded on his reasons for voting not to hire the firm.

“You’re talking about $1.2 million,” Welch said. “To me it’s mostly a budgetary issue. We’re on track to end this year with a balanced budget and you’re not going to do it if you’re spending money on this and spending money on that. I have a problem with a company lobbying board members, putting them on a plane, taking them to see their program-all expenses paid-and then the board member comes back and made the recommendation.”

Kelly attended an Evans Newton seminar last January with Proviso West Principal Alexis Wallace and Ami Relf, then a Proviso West teacher.

Evans Newton President Tami Zale said that about 35 to 40 people from various school districts attended the company’s ninth annual administrators’ conference. Some attendees paid their own way, but the firm offered “scholarships” to others, including the three attendees from Proviso, she said. Zale estimated the cost of airfare, hotel accommodations and admission to the symposium to be about $900 per person.

“It’s a sad day for Proviso,” Kelly said after the vote. “These people have a proven track record. Why wouldn’t we bring them in? This board is not interested in children being educated.”

The conference began on a Wednesday evening and ended on a Friday afternoon. The symposium featured presentations on educational issues and strategies and lasted from 8 a.m. to around 6 p.m.

It was not a vacation, according to Kelly.

“I wasn’t there to play golf,” Kelly said. “Each day was filled.”

Kelly dismissed Welch’s concerns about the cost to the district as insincere, and noted that board members continue to reimburse Welch for legal expenses he is accumulating in a lawsuit that stems from actions he took independently of the board. As of the December meeting those bills total more than $57,800.

“The cost really doesn’t matter to me when I see how wastefully and how inappropriately the funds are dabbled with,” Kelly said. “It’s not right. Our kids should be number one and treated as number one.”

According to Zale, her company specializes in working with underperforming districts.

“We’ve developed systems for turning around schools so that students can do better,” Zale said. “We provide lesson plans and work with cadres of teachers to teach them to develop their own lesson plans. We work with teachers both in and out of the classroom and teach them to be better teachers.”

Proviso East and Proviso West have both failed to meet annual progress requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and test scores at both schools lag far behind state averages.

Collins-Hart wrote in her recommendation to the board that curriculum at District 209 is fragmented and needs to be standardized. She said the district currently lacks the staffing to do the job in-house.