Under state pressure to get its finances in order, the school board for Proviso Township high schools hired a lobbyist whose assignment is to bring money back from Springfield.

Paul Williams, a former state legislator, was recently given a six-month contract worth $30,000 to be the struggling school district’s “squeaky wheel,” said board president Chris Welch. For the last year, the District 209 school board and its administrators have been working with a state-assembled financial oversight panel to end years of deficit spending. The three members of that panel control the district’s budget, and in October rejected the notion of hiring Williams.

However, a revised proposal put several controls in place, and the panel voted 2-1 this month to allow the contract. If Williams doesn’t return at least $30,000 to the district – the value of the contract -he’ll be let go.

“I think it’s a very calculated risk,” Welch said.

A copy of the contract was sought by the Review under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, and was not immediately provided by the district. Administrators said they need additional time to respond to the request.

While still trying to cut millions of dollars from its budget, District 209 is faced with an estimated $3.37 million in maintenance repairs that must be made to its three campuses – Proviso East, Proviso West and Proviso Math and Science Academy – in the next year. According to a Feb. 8 memo to the board, the district has only $200,000 to cover those expenses.

The lobbyist’s job, according to Welch, is to prevent further cuts to the classroom and find new revenue for the district.

“We’re looking ahead. We know that these things have to be done and we’d rather have a non tax-based revenue source so we don’t have to move money from other places,” Welch said.

Jim Popernik is the chairman of the financial oversight panel and cast the dissenting vote when that body decided on Williams’ contract. He listed several reasons for not supporting the deal.

“The state has no money,” Popernik said.

Illinois is about $12 billion in arrears from last year. Whatever money is available for capital improvements has already been earmarked, according to Popernik, and the likelihood of a single suburban school district landing several million dollars in grants is remote.

“This is basically a bet, a gamble, and I wasn’t able to support that,” Popernik said.

Popernik said he was also bothered by the board’s lack of effort to solicit bids, or to work cooperatively with other suburban districts through organizations such as Ed-Red, which lobbies on behalf of dozens of schools across the state.

The district was not required to seek competitive bids for this lobbying contract.