Since January, a small group of fiscal watchdogs has gathered after every Proviso Township high school board meeting to review spending decisions being made at the local level. Generally, these meetings have been lightly attended. But taxpayers should be pleased to hear there are things taking place at these sessions that are sorely needed in District 209.
For starters, there are actual discussions. If you’ve never been to a meeting of the school board, this sounds like a ridiculous “breakthrough” to celebrate. Those who have attended a board meeting in the last few years understand that debate is often cut off before it begins, and that several board members – Dan Adams and Robin Foreman, in particular – are content to sit in silence for hours at a time.
Part of what makes these watchdog meetings so compelling is the group’s authority to compel. It is a financial oversight panel assembled by the state board of education, and members have absolute authority over Proviso’s budget. When they ask a question, it gets answered.
The panel was called in as a last-ditch effort to keep the high schools from becoming wards of the state. The finances are that bad.
Recently, the panel took issue with the school district’s health insurance policies and forced a series of internal controls that could save taxpayers more than $1 million annually. Members of the panel have no interest in vetting the political and selfish motivations that led to such bloated spending, and it’s remarkably refreshing to witness a frank and direct conversation about the pros and cons of different strategies. There is no blame being assigned. This is about finding solutions.
Readers should know, however, that board President Chris Welch is the man who orchestrated so much of the district’s waste. Recently, we asked Welch to speak about hijacking the bidding process two years ago so that he could dole out broker’s fees to his pals. He declined. Looking back at his mistakes won’t solve anything today, he said.
To a certain degree, Welch has every right to snub his nose at any criticism lobbed his way. He resoundingly won re-election to a third term on April 7. Either taxpayers love the job he’s doing, or machine politics are alive and well. Better than 26 percent of Welch’s votes were delivered in Melrose Park where the politically powerful Ron Serpico controls entire swaths of Proviso Township through the mayor’s office.
Because of their past mistakes, Welch and his colleagues on the school board were presented doomsday budgets that could eliminate extracurricular programs, swell class sizes and allow necessary equipment to go by the wayside. It is because of past mistakes that the financial over sight panel exists. It is because of past mistakes that the coming school year could be among the worst ever for teachers and students in Proviso.