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Proviso Probe

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

District 209 BOE meeting, September 21, 2009

On Monday, September 21, the Proviso Township High Schools (District 209) board of education held its regular (monthly) meeting at Proviso East High School.

This was the first meeting I've attended in a significant period of time, and to me the meeting seemed different.

There were fewer people attending, but this may have been due to no parents or students being invited for the student and staff recognition portion of the meeting. Things seemed more sedate. No members of the community asked questions. The BOE has stopped hiring a cop to intimidate people who would criticize the BOE.

Board member Theresa Kelly made the comment to me after the meeting that between the district being financially strapped and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Financial Oversight Panel (FOP) there is less opportunity for the D209 BOE to engage in financial shenanigans.

In the past most board meetings had relatively low participation by board members. In the extreme, board president Emanuel “Chris” Welch would dutifully proceed through the agenda and Kelly would ask questions and the rest of the board members limited their participation to making motions to implement the agenda and voting.

At times the board seemed to be holding an actual conversation. Board member Kevin McDermott grilled Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Nikita Johnson on the monthly financial report. And then Board member Brian Cross also asked a question. When Kelly asked about the Alternate School Facility, she made a point and board member Robin Foreman supported her on the point.

Targeting Achievement through Governance (TAG)

Prior to the 7 PM board meeting, the school board held a committee of the whole presentation (minus board member Dan Adams who arrived fifteen minutes late to the regular meeting, missing the committee meeting entirely) by Steve Clark of the Illinois Association of School Boards. Clark was pitching a program called Targeting Achievement through Governance (TAG) (pdf) that would train D209 board members and work with the district to make the BOE more effective.

Clark made two claims that I noted. One, he claimed that at least one district that had done TAG had moved off the financial watch list before completing TAG.

Clark also claimed that an Iowa study correlated board effectiveness and school achievement. I'm curious how one measures the effectiveness of a BOE. Communities with their act together probably have effective school boards and effective schools. Proviso does not have its act together. And maybe the dysfunctional school results from the larger community being dysfunctional. Maybe District 209 can't be substantially improved without dealing with Proviso's issues.

Attendance

D209 claims to have increased the attendance rate to 88%. Credit was given the new busing program and generally making an effort to illicit better behavior in the hallways.

I have not checked with any independent sources if the discipline is better in the school.

Busing students seems to be a solid idea.

I did get annoyed at Welch's claim that, “We've all received phone calls [praising improved discipline at the schools].” There are two board members I seriously doubt get calls from any Proviso residents who aren't personally connected to them. My experience calling Foreman was that she said, “Don't call me at this number” and hung up without giving me another number to call her at. In years of watching D209 board meetings, I have yet to see any evidence Adams cares a whit about the students, taxpayers, staff or anything else.

Computer Science II

D209 has cut the computer science curriculum drastically as part of budget cuts. If I understood the situation correctly, Proviso East and Proviso West have cut all computer science classes and PMSA cut computer science II, leaving the magnet school with just one computer science class.

During her presentation to the BOE, McDermott asked Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Cheryl Pruitt if there was plans to restore computer science II. Pruitt responded, “Yes,” and there was a long pause. After it became clear that was all the response Pruitt intended to give McDermott asked what those plans were. Pruitt responded that when the budget increased computer science II will be restored.

The exchange made Pruitt look unprofessional. And Pruitt is clueless if she thinks Proviso taxpayers are going to open their wallets for a tax increase. The school district spends plenty of money and delivers horrid results. That's reality. Taxpayers who are pinched because of the tight economy aren't going to vote D209 more money.

What to do with the leftover $1.2 million for PMSA?

McDermott grilled Assistant Superintendent Johnson on $1.2 million leftover from the construction of PMSA. After some ugly attempts to deflect the issue, the district's attorney Michael DeBartolo and board president Welch threw Johnson lifelines.

Johnson was briefing the district's monthly cash flow situation when McDermott asked about transfering the $1.2 million from the construction fund to operations and maintenance. McDermott pointed out this was not allowed.

(The transfer was suspended by the FOP pending review. I surmise McDermott learned that the move was illegal at that point.)

DeBartolo informed McDermott he had made a legal ruling that excess money could be moved this way. (I surmise he reasoned the money shouldn't just sit there.)

McDermott raised the issue that using the money for something other than the construction of PMSA required D209 to provide a tax abatement to Proviso taxpayers.

Johnson explained that the abatement would be in the future (two years) and that moving the money would allow it to be used now.

McDermott told Johnson that if she was recommending the BOE move money in a way that violated Illinois law that she should have explained the ramifications of her recommendation.

Johnson said she didn't discuss the tax abatement with the BOE because it “doesn't affect the current year.”

Johnson was clearly foundering at this point. DeBartolo threw the first lifeline. DeBartolo explained that currently school districts can only increase taxes at the rate of inflation. In the future they will be able to increase taxes at 5%. So, D209 can provide an abatement in the future, but it won't hurt the district because the district will be able to raise taxes sufficiently to cover the abatement. To me it sounded like DeBartolo was advocating the district ignore the law requiring the abatement, but I'm not an attorney.

DeBartolo also mentioned that he recommended completing the audit of the PMSA construction so D209 can certify the project really is complete.

At this point McDermott asked about the audit. Johnson said there was a draft audit from 1 ½ year ago. It was incomplete and that she doesn't intend to circulate it until it's complete. To me Johnson sounded like she was hiding something. D209 has changed accounting firms. This would account for the audit being incomplete, but not Johnson's reluctance to share the incomplete audit with the board.

Welch then threw Johnson her next lifeline. Welch noted that the board had already acted to move the money to the operations and maintenance fund. The FOP tabled the issue, so it was out of the purview of the BOE.

Welch's reasoning sounded persuasive at the time. But it's flawed. Johnson asked the BOE to do something illegal so she would have an extra $1.2 million to make her budget work. The BOE voted to move the money, but did so without full information. The BOE has the power to undo the illegal decision.

I would recommend that at the next board meeting the BOE take whatever action is necessary to bring D209 into compliance with Illinois law on this matter. I would further recommend that the BOE have a conversation with Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart about Johnson. Senior staff recommending the BOE violate the law and withholding the fact that the recommended action violates the law is a bad thing. In fact, I imagine many organizations would fire a staff member for doing this.

Did Johnson make the recommendation because she doesn't know the law? Did Johnson and Collins-Hart conspire to dupe the BOE? Or was Johnson's illegal recommendation unauthorized?

Cross then asked how long D209 can go without issuing tax anticipation warrants? Apparently the Cook County Treasurer is behind on paying local taxing bodies. Johnson responded D209 has money to operate through late November, early December.

Employees terminated

Kelly asked if any of the employees terminated were asked to resign or were fired. The superintendent replied they weren't. (By tradition D209 BOE votes to approve employees that have quit. This has always seemed odd to me because the BOE has no power to “disapprove”.)


[More to be added later]

RIP Tom Dix

The meeting started with the acknowledgment that PMSA instructor Thomas Dix recently died. He was the faculty rep for the robotics team.

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