Damaged relationships and suspicions of conspiracy have been common themes in a particularly bitter race for three open seats on the Proviso Township High Schools District 209 school board.
"The timing is off as far as I'm concerned," said Theresa Kelly, the longest-serving member of the D209 board, of the four opponents aligned against her — Proviso United's Laighton Scott, Denard Wade and Beverly Robertson, and unaffiliated candidate Sandy Aguirre.
Kelly, along with her running mates on the Proviso Together slate — incumbents Claudia Medina and Ned Wagner, the current D209 board president — believes that United and Aguirre are running coordinated campaigns designed to open the floodgates for machine players like Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico to be influential in the district again just as the board gears up to spend millions on facilities improvements.
For their part, United and Aguirre — all of whom said that they supported Proviso Together in the past — dismiss those claims as baseless, arguing that their candidacies are rooted in the current board majority's failure to deliver on the promises it set back when Proviso Together was still an upstart operation; not a party with a 7-person supermajority on the D209 board.
The fracture between Proviso Together's former supporters and the slate's sitting board members has been exacerbated by a fracture at the board table itself, with both Sam Valtierrez and Della Patterson — both of whom were elected in 2017 on the Proviso Together slate — having split with the party (Patterson is supporting Proviso United while Valtierrez is supporting Aguirre, a fellow Melrose Parker).
"With all the progress we've done, I can't see why anyone would want to come in now," Kelly said. "I can see if we weren't doing what we said we'd do, but everything we said we'd do we accomplished."
Medina said that the majority's "foundational work" has been getting rid of the politically connected contractors that were staples at D209 in the past, such as the Del Galdo Law Group and Restore Construction.
"We have also revitalized finances," said Wagner, referencing the district's upgraded bond rating, the increased per-pupil-funding at the district, the implementation of a 5-year budget and the approval of a master facilities plan that will address "30 years of deferred maintenance" at the district, among other factors.
The Proviso Together candidates sounded the alarm about campaign contributions to Aguirre, citing state election data that shows that Restore Construction and the Del Galdo Law Group — two companies that did business with District 209 before the current board majority took over — have recently contributed money to political committees controlled by Serpico. So far, state data shows, Aguirre has received $15,000 from those committees.
Aguirre, who has run against candidates backed by the Melrose Park mayor in the past, said that the contributions are the result of the fact that she and Serpico recently discovered that they share similar educational beliefs. She added that she has broad support from other elected officials, as well.
"I'm constantly being accused [of being controlled by the machine]," Aguirre said. "What's the proof? […] Accuse me of doing something when you see me do it."
Wagner, responding to Aguirre during a Forest Park Review endorsement interview session earlier this month, said that "corruption doesn't happen at the board table, it happens in the intervening months and days … We want nothing to do with corruption."
Proviso United candidates have also been careful to put space between their candidacies and powerful political interests.
"This is a grassroots operation coming directly from the people in need," Wade said.
Scott said that United's campaign is, in part, the result of promises that Proviso Together failed to deliver.
"When they came into office, they promised to put in vocational programming," Scott said. "They promised it and didn't move on it at all … Once we started running and that became part of our platform, classes started to appear and they dubbed them programs, but in the first two-and-a-half to three years, there was nothing."
Robertson said that the current board is not completely transparent about some of its claims related to Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park, namely that the school has a 100 percent graduate rate.
"That hasn't been true since the day that school opened," Robertson said. "We should stop touting and hanging how well PMSA is doing and how glamorous it is, when it's not."
Wade said that the board "should open up the lines of communication" with teachers in the district, adding that "there is intimidation among staff at Proviso."
Wade also lambasted the current board majority on the issue of expulsions. Although he conceded that the number of expulsions at D209 has decreased dramatically, he credited the reduction to SB 100 — the state law that makes it harder for high schools to suspend and expel students — and added that "the faults and the ills" related to the expulsion of black male students in D209 "are still there."
Aguirre, along with the Proviso United slate, also honed in on other factors they consider failures of the board majority, including the lack of engagement with the district's alumni base, data related to student achievement that is not accurate and faulty enrollment information. United candidates said that they plan on initiating a forensic audit to get to the bottom of those perceived problems.
Proviso Together candidates, however, have argued that their four opponents are simply piling on in an effort to muddy the waters, particularly for low-information voters, arguing that most of the information that has been put out by Aguirre and United has not been substantiated by reliable sources.