Theresa Kelly may no longer be president of the Proviso High School District 209 Board of Education by the end of this school year.
The board’s last meeting on April 12 ended with a walk-out by four of its members as the board wrangled over a proposed change to policy that would limit the terms of the board president to one year. The proposal comes halfway through Kelly’s two-year term.
Board member Kevin McDermott proposed the policy change, which would allow the board to hold a board election in June if his policy change is approved by a majority of its members at the May 12 board meeting.
Members who support Kelly’s presidency, or at least not making a change midway through a president’s term, admit they likely do not have the votes to keep her in the position when the vote comes. Those opposed to her presidency agree, but they offer few reasons as to why the change is necessary.
Kelly said she will continue to serve the board of education regardless of her position on it.
“I was elected to serve the board and that’s what I’ll continue to do, president or not,” Kelly said Monday. “This is just politics.”
Through interviews conducted with members of the board over the last two weeks, the Forest Park Review has tried to get definitive reasons as to why some members feel the change is necessary. Two members of the board, Brian Cross and Teresa McKelvy, did not respond to multiple requests for interviews on the subject.
Members Claudia Medina, Ned Wagner and Kelly herself say members who want to hold another election for board president halfway through Kelly’s term should at least provide the public with solid reasoning for why they think the change is necessary.
McDermott and Dan Adams were the only members not supporting Kelly’s presidency who agreed to an interview. Both paint Kelly as a dictator who has lost the support of the majority of the board and has a temperament unsuited for the position.
Kelly said she believes McDermott hopes to claim the position of president for himself, while Cross, Adams and McKelvy are simply exploiting the opportunity to get rid of Kelly’s ability to set the board’s agenda.
McDermott refused to discuss the possibility of his appointment to the president’s seat if a new election occurs.
“Mrs. Kelly is trying to position this that it’s all about me and about me being power hungry,” McDermott said. “I’m not going to have a conversation about that because it’s not about me.”
According to several members of the board, McDermott has been trying to find a way to remove Kelly as president for several months. Two months ago, McDermott reportedly asked the district’s legal counsel what it would take to remove Kelly from her seat and was allegedly told that she would have to have violated board policy in some way. If members wanted to allege that she had, she would be given a formal hearing with representation and the board would need to disclose her alleged violations.
Those board members who would speak about the issue said this course of action was abandoned by McDermott because there is no just cause to remove her.
Wagner, Medina and Kelly say not only has Kelly not violated any of the board’s policies, her leadership has led to numerous accomplishments, including the formation of several committees to address issues in the district with faculty and community members.
Instead, they allege that the opposing board members are trying to get around the hearing requirement by trying to change the board’s policy on term limits.
According to several board members, the district’s legal counsel has cautioned the board against this. During a first reading of the proposed policy change, April 12, Wagner called on the district’s counsel to read a letter drafted for the board that would give his legal advice on the issue.
Because such legal advice is privileged, the district’s counsel was prevented from discussing his advice in the public meeting after McDermott, Cross, McKelvy and Adams voted against waiving that privilege.
In our follow-up interview, McDermott refused to discuss the letter and said he opposed waiving the board’s privacy right as a matter of principle.
“It was inappropriate under the circumstances for the letter to be read,” McDermott said of his vote. “Litigation or potential litigation is confidential by nature.”
According to several sources, the letter from the district’s counsel warns the board that it could expose itself to litigation if the board’s policy is changed halfway through the president’s term and recommends instead that the board change its policy at the end of a term.
Kelly’s supporters said the other members’ refusal to allow the counsel’s letter to be read publicly shows how little her opponents value transparency.
When asked to respond to that accusation, McDermott said it was false, but said he wouldn’t answer a question about how allowing the public to hear the legal advice would harm the district.
Adams also declined to address what harm might come if the letter were made public. However, he was more direct about the reason behind the proposed change in policy.
“I’m voting for the policy change to remove [Kelly],” Adams said bluntly. “I only voted for her to show everyone how bad she is. I am sick and tired of everyone thinking she’s a great reformer.”
Adams, however, could not provide a specific reason or incident that showed she was a poor leader. Asked if he was concerned about the precedent such a change would set, he said no.
“We’re the board and we can change policy whenever we want,” he said.
For his part, McDermott would only repeat a line he used twice at the April 12 meeting — that if Kelly were able to find the support on the board after the policy change, she could get re-elected.
However, McDermott said he did not plan to vote to re-elect Kelly after the policy change, effectively sealing her removal as president.
“Kelly and her supporters have waged a relentless campaign of attack against me from the day she was elected,” McDermott said.
McDermott claims he has been threatened by Kelly on multiple occasions when they have disagreed on issues. He filed a police report in Forest Park after he alleged that Kelly implied she would have her adult children attack him.
No other board member interviewed said they witnessed the exchange, but several disputed McDermott’s accusations that Kelly was threatening or a bully.
“As far as a threat, I don’t think anyone witnessed a threat,” Wagner said. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. Theresa is not a bully. Does she go along with what they want? No.”
Medina agreed, saying Kelly can be passionate during discussions but could hardly be called a bully.
“She holds them accountable; that’s what they don’t like,” Medina said.
Even Adams, who said Kelly was divisive, a poor leader and a dictator, said he didn’t find her intimidating.
Medina said she believes one of the real reasons for the policy change is to do away with the committees Kelly formed after becoming president to address issues in the district. The four committees — policy, discipline, education and finance — were formed to allow the board to work on district issues in a transparent setting that allowed the community, students and faculty to bring about solutions together. Policies crafted in the committees are brought before the board for approval.
“It brought in all the stakeholders,” Medina said. “They want to abolish the committees because they don’t want to do the extra work.”
According to Kelly and Medina, neither Cross nor Adams have attended a single committee meeting. Kelly said she believed McKelvy had attended two since they were put in place.
Medina also said that none of the board members who oppose Kelly’s presidency have a student who has attended, is attending, or will attend a Proviso school. As such, she said, none of them has a stake in what actually happens in the district.
McDermott said he felt that was an unfair accusation — his mother was a teacher, his brother is a teacher and he himself is an adjunct professor.
“I think education is a great calling and it’s incredibly important for our community,” he said. “I got involved because I saw a major problem in [how the district was run].”
Wagner, for his part, said he agreed with that assessment. McDermott, he said, has been instrumental to a number of achievements by the board and was a major reason why he himself decided to run for a seat on the board.
“I think there is a place for someone without kids in the district to have a seat on the board,” Wagner said.
Still, he didn’t believe McDermott was being completely forthcoming about his true motivations.
“If that was the case, look at Theresa and what she’s done,” Wagner said. “She has done so much for this district. Under this leadership, this board has done so much to improve the schools and to work for the students. That’s why they can’t point to anything specific — because there is no reason to remove her halfway through her term. [McDermott] wants to be president. Why? What does that really accomplish?”
Adams, who previously served as board president, said he didn’t believe the board was ultimately the biggest factor in the success or failure of the district. He said Proviso students and their parents’ commitment to education was why the district continues to struggle.
“I think it’s cultural,” Adams said. “Parents aren’t involved in what their kids do.”
He also doesn’t believe any of the accomplishments Kelly’s supporters attribute to her could actually be called her accomplishments.
“We’re the board and we set policy,” he said. “Some of those accomplishments that they said at the meeting were begun when I was president.”
Adams said he was not seeking the presidency again but did not know how he would vote. Likewise, McDermott declined to say which member he felt would be best to replace Kelly as president.
For different reasons, Wagner, Medina and Kelly all said the same. Wagner especially said he struggled with the decision.
If there was any point all the members interviewed could agree on was that the fight is detrimental to the image and work the board needs to do to help Proviso become a stronger school district.
Adams said he and the other board members he’s aligned with were likely unprepared for the reaction they got from the audience at the last meeting. He said those in attendance were only a vocal minority and that he would try to explain his position better at the next meeting.
Wagner and Medina seemed resigned to the writing on the wall that will spell the early end of Kelly’s presidency. Both said they were heartbroken over the politics of the issue, but that they would continue to work toward what they thought was best for the students and the district.
Who’s in and who’s out at District 209? We’ll know more at the May 12 board meeting.