A group of township residents alleging that District 209 has inappropriately spent taxpayer money is mounting a legal challenge, said one of the participants, arguing the right of school board President Chris Welch to be reimbursed for attorneys fees.
Westchester resident Kevin McDermott said he is one of the plaintiffs in the potential lawsuit, which is yet to be filed. Likely, said McDermott, there would be several plaintiffs in the case.
“Certainly, I was pretty outraged by this,” McDermott said.
Dating back to June 2008, school board members at the Proviso Township high schools have approved paying more than $57,880 to Travis Richardson and Myron Mackoff, two Chicago attorneys representing Welch in a defamation suit. The claim against Welch was filed in Cook County Circuit Court in 2007. Neither the school board nor the school district are defendants.
Each time that school board members have been asked to pay these bills, Welch has voted in favor of doing so, but his vote has not been a tie-breaker. Two board members, Theresa Kelly and Sue Henry, have consistently voted against the appropriation. A third board member, Brian Cross, has abstained.
Welch is being sued for allegedly posting libelous statements to a blog that he and codefendant Emily Robinson maintained. The comments were made anonymously and detailed underhanded behavior allegedly carried out by Burt Odelson and Mark Sterk, two lawyers whose firm had recently been terminated by the District 209 school board.
In court filings Welch has denied that the postings were defamatory. He also filed a countersuit alleging that Odelson and Sterk conspired with Welch’s former employer to have him fired.
“My opinion is that the legal case is between Chris and Odelson’s law firm,” McDermott said. “It has nothing to do with the board. The board had no business paying what I consider to be Chris’ personal legal bills.”
It was not immediately clear from whom McDermott and the other disgruntled taxpayers would attempt to recoup the money that they argue should not have been paid. McDermott declined to release the names of other residents who may join him in the case, and said no final decisions on whether the complaint will be filed have been made.
Laura Liu, an attorney with the Hogan Marren law firm in Chicago, confirmed that she is working with McDermott. She declined to comment on the arguments that may be presented to the court.
Should the dispute land in court, McDermott acknowledged that additional taxpayer funds may be tapped by the defendants. Whether that possibility would defeat the goal of the lawsuit hasn’t been decided, said McDermott. Another option, he said, is for the board to reverse course.
“Should we end up in legal action we would hope that the board just reconsider its action,” McDermott said.
McDermott has been critical of the role politics have played in District 209, and on occasion has aimed his remarks at Welch. In early 2007 he campaigned for a spot on the school board, but lost. In August of that year he joined more than two dozen township residents in what turned out be a lackluster attempt at pressuring federal, state and local officials to improve the schools. District 209 encompasses Proviso Township’s three public high schools; Proviso East, Proviso West and Proviso Math and Science Academy, which is located in Forest Park.
A phone call to the district’s contracted law firm, Del Galdo Law Group, was not returned. An attorney from the firm, Michael DeBartolo, has advised board members that it is appropriate to reimburse Welch.
“The issue is that Chris Welch – and any other board member – is a board member 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” DeBartolo said in June when Welch first sought compensation from the district. “If Chris Welch comments on anything, some people may take it as him communicating as Chris Welch, president of the District 209 Board of Education.”