Upated June 26, 2:30 p.m.

The District 209 Financial Oversight Panel was extended and bumped up to a new status which gives it more powers June 22 at a meeting of the Illinois State Board of Education. The ISBE voted 8-0 to give the D209 Proviso High Schools oversight panel 1H status, which allows it to hire and fire superintendents and financial officers, negotiate contracts and help the district get low-interest loans. The change will take effect July 1.

But the decision was not made until after a battle of words, which State School Board President Gery Chico described as, “more testimony than any other event since I’ve been here.”

The state board heard passionate arguments the previous day from two camps in a bifurcated Illinois State School Board meeting that took place via video conference in both Springfield and Chicago.

Rival groups from Proviso gathered in separate cities: From Springfield the ISBE heard the testimony of some District 209 school board members including President Chris Welch, along with Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart, Financial Director Romaneir Polley and community members advocating dissolution of the oversight panel. In Chicago school board members included Brian Cross and Dan Adams and minority school board members Kevin McDermott and Theresa Kelley and panelist James Popernik spoke in favor of upgrading the oversight panel.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch recommended that the ISBE side with the FOP, and upgrade the panel to 1H status. “The continuance of the Financial Oversight Panel is necessary to insure all processes are completed as projected to ensure the best education for the students,” he wrote in a memo to the board.

But that didn’t stop District 209 anti-FOP protestors. D209 attorney Michael DiBartolo argued that the panel, if left in place, should remain as a status B-1, without new powers given by the Illinois legislature.

“[Giving the panel new powers] would be a disenfranchisement of the voters of Proviso,” he said.

Board President Welch assured the ISBE that $400,000 in personal legal fees denied by the oversight panel would not be resubmitted. “The board has sent you reassurance that no legal bills will be reconsidered unless a court declares otherwise.” Welch also requested that members of the panel be completely replaced. “We don’t think the disrespect the current panel has shown to us can be ignored.”

Taxpayers and parents chiming in from Springfield also complained about the FOP, saying it was “rude and disrespectful to Proviso and the school board,” said one woman. “All they did was count beans, they didn’t see our children or our community,” said another taxpayer. “Why is the state board seeking more control of the district when the state can’t pay its bills?” asked another.

But the Financial Oversight Panel also had its supporters:

James Popernik, of the FOP, said, “You’ve heard that the FOP has been disrespectful and contentious with the district. We are retired school district budget officials. Sure we ask difficult questions about out-of-state trips and college tours. When districts are in a difficult position, priorities have to be made. This is not a black and white issue.”

Proviso board member Kelley complained about wasted money. “I’ve seen $100,000 spent on 700 garbage cans…I want to see Proviso placed high upon the mantle where it once was.”

Proviso board member McDermott, who supported the panel, said he felt that the panel was helpful to the board. “Additional powers [of the 1H status] are necessary to address contracts for friends and patronage hiring” in the district, he said.

And former D209 employee Della Hayes spoke in favor of the FOP and criticized the group in Springfield: “I was not rented today. I didn’t have to dial 1-800 Dial-A-Fool to get me here. The shenanigans in District 209 have gone on too long. There’s no cultural differences, this has everything do to with money. When you have a panel in place there’s accountability.”

In the end, the state school board voted to upgrade the FOP, but Chico had final words for the D209 school board. Earlier in the board meeting the state completely disbanded the school boards of East St. Louis and North Chicago in response to poor student performance and financial instability.

“The [209] board remains a governing body. I expect the board will remain in charge of governance for that district and work with the FOP. We are not disbanding the board. We are not neutering the board. It’s clear, when you want to remove a board, you have that ability.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...