Tuesday night’s Proviso District 209 Board of Education meeting ended abruptly when four members of the board left the meeting mid-session.
Board member Brian Cross repeatedly called the board to adjourn shortly after the board took a five-minute recess during a heated debate over a change in board policy that would reduce the board president’s term from two years to one.
When Cross’ calls for adjournment were not acknowledged by President Theresa Kelly, four board members including Cross, Teresa McKelvy, Kevin McDermott and Daniel Adams stood up, packed their bags and left the room, effectively ending the meeting.
Tensions ran high during the meeting as Kelly and board members Ned Wagner and Claudia Medina struggled to get a clear reason for why their fellow members were suggesting the policy change. The fight was precipitated by McDermott’s request for a change in board policy that would cut the board president’s term in half.
“The lack of transparency here is disturbing,” Wagner said of the motivation for the change, later calling it a “coup” to take the presidency away from Kelly.
Earlier in the evening, members of the public, advocating for Kelly, spoke during public comment with thinly veiled threats directed toward a faction of board members who seemed aligned to end Kelly’s presidency early, three of whom are up for re-election in 2017. Members of the public suggested board members who wanted to vote out Kelly as president had racist motivations, were playing dirty politics, and were beholden to local party bosses.
Speakers included Maywood Trustee Isiah Brandon, who said he previously had no plans to run for a seat on the school board, but would consider changing his mind to target seats by board members who voted against Kelly’s presidency. Arbdella “Della” Patterson, a former school board candidate, said she was particularly disappointed in McDermott, whom she believes wants Kelly’s position for himself.
“You want this presidency like a dog wants a bone,” Patterson said. “You’re going to attempt to take this by any means necessary.”
Kelly used the President’s Report portion of the meeting to list the board’s many accomplishments under her leadership, suggesting that there was no basis for a change in board policy that could cut her term in half.
McDermott said at the start of the board’s discussion that his suggestion for the change was motivated to bring equal accountability to every board member. McDermott also argued that if the policy change were approved, there was no reason Kelly wouldn’t remain board president if she could get a majority of the board to back her when the board voted for president again later this spring.
“This policy change is an effort to bring that level of accountability and review to bear on every board position, to make it uniform across the district,” McDermott said.
Kelly questioned his motivations and said the term-limit policy had remained unchanged since 2007. She also alleged that he wanted the position for himself.
The tension between board members deepened when Wagner requested that the district’s attorney provide advice to the board on the issue of whether the board could change the term limits of a president in the middle of a term. The district’s attorney had previously written a letter to the board, which Wagner wanted read during the meeting.
However, the attorney told the members that he would need a majority of the board to approve of him discussing his private legal advice in a public forum. Kelly said she would like him to do so, but Cross appealed her decision.
McDermott also argued that the information provided by the attorney was private and not meant to be discussed in public.
Even so, Kelly suggested that the attorney’s advice would be in her favor.
“We have a six-page letter here stating that [the district’s legal counsel] does not condone this,” Kelly said in response. “This district can be sued and I have the right to sue each and every one of you.”
Ultimately, a motion to read the letter aloud at the meeting failed 4 to 3 — with Cross, McDermott, Adams and McKelvy voting against — and the attorney’s advice was not given publicly.
“I don’t see this as a policy issue,” Wagner said. “I see this as an attempt to remove Theresa Kelly as president. It really has nothing to do with policy.”
There was no actual vote on the change scheduled at the meeting, as it was only a first reading of a proposed policy change. Presumably, the vote on the change in policy would occur after it is placed on the agenda for the board’s next meeting.
“Just so the audience knows, nothing is going to change tonight,” Wagner told the audience, who called out that they would return again in force.
Wagner and Medina repeatedly asked their fellow board members why they would want a policy change, given the board’s many accomplishments under Kelly’s leadership. Medina called the proposed policy change absurd and said the motivation was blatantly political.
“What is really happening is you’re trying to stop the progress that an incredible woman who has dedicated 17 years of her life to improving the students, to improving the district … to dedicating the resources to the improvement of our district,” Medina said. “Why don’t you give us a reason why you’re doing this?”
Cross, McKelvy, McDermott and Adams largely declined to provide a reason. Cross did say he believed the board would be better managed under new leadership, which was why he supported the change, but he would not elaborate.
Kelly said she was surprised by his criticism, brought up the death of his wife and said she gave money to his daughter’s college fund and asked, “Is that what I get?” The question clearly angered Cross, who called on Kelly to bring order and said the board needed to keep personalities out of the debate and simply discuss the issue.
Cross added that the vice president and secretary each are elected to one-year terms and the president should be, too. However, Kelly said Cross never tried to change term limits under former board president, now state representative for the 7th District, Chris Welch.
Kelly again claimed that the reason behind McDermott’s request for a change in policy was that McDermott wanted desperately to be board president himself, which McDermott angrily said was untrue. Kelly said she had even been approached by McDermott early after she was elected, and he allegedly told her he wanted to be president and he wanted her to support him.
“When I won the election, Mr. McDermott wanted me to meet him. … I talked with him and he told me, ‘I’m going to the be the president.'”
McDermott cried out that her allegation was “patently false.”
Kelly then told him to “watch his disposition” and said he was subject to “temper tantrums,” then argued that McDermott was unsuited for the position because of anger problems.
Kelly even went so far as to ask if, during a finance meeting, McDermott screamed at Kelly and intimidated his fellow board members and the district’s administration. Kelly alleged that Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart felt threatened that McDermott “was going to hit her.” Medina asked if Collins-Hart felt intimidated during the finance meeting.
“Due to the volatility, yes I did push back [from the table],” Collins-Hart said.
Kelly also said that McDermott has called another member of the board an, “F-ing, I’ll spell it for you, B-I-T-C-H.”
Wagner called on the board to postpone the debate until the board could attend their board retreat together. The motion was voted down 4 to 3 along the same lines as previous motions.
The board frequently battled over Roberts Rules of Order, which provide a governing structure for the board’s meetings, until Cross threatened that board members would leave the meeting. Eventually the board voted to take the five-minute recess.
When they returned, Wagner again called for the board to go on retreat together to relieve the stress.
“I think we can work together and figure it out and we don’t have to play these games and embarrass ourselves before the community and set a good example for the kids,” Wagner said.
Cross said the board was no longer debating the motion and called for adjournment, which went unacknowledged, ultimately leading to the walk-out.