The District 91 Board of Education approved a package of changes to the conflict-of-interest policy that loosens provisions when it comes to contracts that involve state or federal funds.
The previous policy stated that for any person who has “a close personal relationship” with any board member, getting a contract was a conflict of interest, specifically mentioning “a member of the board member’s immediate family or household.”
The new policy only keeps the “immediate family” section. The new policy does indicate that any kind of partner other than strictly a business partner, who gets the contract, is a conflict of interest. The new policy keeps the provision about conflicts of interest applying to board members’ employers or potential employers intact.
The changes approved during the Jan. 12 meeting are part of the regular update the board conducts to account for changes in state and/or federal law and new guidance from the Illinois Association of School Boards. Board member Steve Rummel said that, before the changes are improved, he wanted to make sure the school district still had measures in place to avoid bias. Supt. Elizabeth Alvarez confirmed that it did, and Rummel joined the rest of the board in unanimously approving the changes.
Like other Illinois school boards, the D91 board regularly gets policy updates from the Policy Reference Education Subscription Service (PRESS), an Illinois Association of School Boards online subscription service. Boards don’t necessarily have to adopt changes that aren’t based on state/federal law, but they usually follow PRESS’ lead.
Both the previous version and the update indicate that there is a “financial or other interest” to either the board member or individual or businesses that have relationships with them. While the previous version says there has to be “financial or other interest” from the contract, the update added that it would also include any “tangible benefit.”
As Rummel noted during the Jan. 12 meeting, with the updates, the policy wouldn’t automatically apply to friends and extended family of the board members. He said he wanted to avoid the situation where friends and extended family members end up benefitting from their connections to board members.
“We have not had the problem here, but there are entities that have had problems with, not necessary self-dealing, but dealing with friends, family members who have financial interests, and [I] didn’t want to see it happen here,” Rummel said.
Proviso Township High School District 209 has had issues with conflicts of interest in the past. In June 11, 2019, the board hired Dwon Kelly, son of then-board member Theresa Kelly, as the head coach at Proviso West. Kelly abstained from the vote, as did board members Sam Valtierrez and Amanda Grant.
Rummel said he wanted to make sure that D91 already has a policy of blind bidding, where board members see qualifications but not any personal identifying information, if a business where a friend or a relative is involved. Alvarez confirmed that was the case.
Board President Kyra Tyler said she supported the change in the policy. The COVID-19 pandemic led to more people starting their own businesses, and she argued that it made no sense to keep anyone but a close family from having the opportunity to get district contracts.
“There are so many entrepreneurs, so many more people who are delivering services and goods,” Tyler said. “Maybe they are your cousin or your brother-in-law’s ex-wife. Perhaps there’s a little bit of [connection] where, to some extent, there are so many connections out there.”
She added that “we don’t want to tamp down” the growth of local entrepreneurship.
Rummel said he agreed — so long as there are mitigating controls.
“I don’t think we should penalize people just because they’re related to us, or people like us,” he said.