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Suburban school districts have board members' relatives on payroll

In Lansing School District 158, the payroll looks a little like a family tree.

At least 14 relatives of school board members — from spouses to kids to grandkids — have landed jobs, with taxpayers paying the tab of some $550,000 in the last five years, records show.

"It's immoral. You know it's wrong,'' said new board member Anthony Arens, who campaigned against family hiring in the south Cook district. "There is so much nepotism and cronyism, my stomach is in knots."

Across the Chicago region, school boards are spending millions of public dollars employing board members' relatives, a practice exacerbated by weak laws, little oversight and limited disclosure about who gets jobs, a Tribune investigation has found.

Unlike some states, Illinois doesn't ban boards from hiring family, and relatives have been employed as teachers, aides, subs, custodians, cafeteria workers and more — even as the economy tanked, unemployment rose and a teacher glut made competition stiff. Typically, boards must approve the hiring of teachers and noncertified staff.

The Tribune found nearly 100 board relatives on school payrolls through data searches, interviews and public records from 32 districts representing a cross-section of the six-county area.

The identified relatives likely just scratch the surface — only about 10 percent of the region's nearly 300 districts were investigated and usually only employees with the same last names as board members were examined.

"You can't get a job unless you know a board member,'' a Bellwood School District 88 employee complained during a public board meeting in January.

At the same meeting, the west Cook board voted to give a $16,618 retroactive pay raise to board member Marilyn Thurman's nephew Charles McGee, a maintenance worker who wasn't even working — he was on paid leave. He had been arrested on charges of stealing and using a district teacher's debit card in November, court records show.

Thurman said the pay increase stemmed from a grievance about her nephew's salary, now $48,859.

The pay for relatives can add up, salary records show, with taxpayers footing the bill:

•Oak Lawn's Community High School District 218 has paid $711,568 since 2006-07 to at least seven board relatives. Board member Johnny Holmes, who also is police chief in Robbins, has had a son, grandson and wife on the payroll. His wife retired but still works as a $25-an-hour part-time tutor. She's earned $41,000 since 2009. Holmes could not be reached for comment.

•Will County's Union School District 81 has paid $558,000 over the decade employing board President John LaRocca's wife, three daughters and two sons, who have worked in custodial to cafeteria jobs. Two other board members also have relatives working.

The Tribune reported last March that LaRocca had family on the payroll, and he said it wasn't against district policy. After local media publicity about his wife's pay — $58,950 as a kitchen supervisor and bus driver — the board recently cut her salary to $48,223.

•West Cook's Proviso Township High School District 209 has paid about $942,000 over nine years to four relatives of board President Emanuel "Chris" Welch, including a brother with a criminal past who earns $56,760 as a night custodian.

Welch said he has "absolutely no role" in the hiring process. He also has an aunt and two cousins in the district, in teaching, custodial and security jobs. Lawyers advised that he could vote on the hires, Welch said, so he didn't abstain.

•DuPage's Lake Park High School District 108 and Benjamin School District 25 each have three board members with relatives on the payroll, at salaries totaling almost $500,000 in the last five years. Of the six, only two Benjamin board members with relatives disclosed the relationships on state-required forms in 2011.

'Insider stuff'

The Tribune reviewed hundreds of the ethics filings, finding few board members reporting relatives employed. Board members say the form's questions are confusing and unclear.

"If you look at the form, it is filled with legalese … and if you stand there and ask people for help, they look at you and say you need to see a lawyer," said Dennis Peterson, a veteran board member in Benjamin, who reported on the form that his wife teaches in the district.

She worked her way up from aide to teacher and earned a master's degree, he said. "She did the whole thing herself. I didn't do anything," Peterson said. He added that if relative hiring "looks bad, maybe we ought not do that. It does look like insider sort of stuff."

States such as New Jersey and Texas bar hiring of school board relatives, with limited exceptions, and New Jersey school districts can lose state aid if they violate nepotism policies. In Illinois, school boards can — but aren't required to — adopt their own anti-nepotism policies. Board members can — but don't have to — abstain from voting on matters related to relatives.

Conflict-of-interest criminal violations can occur if, for example, "a board member actively promotes the financial interests of his or her spouse," according to the Illinois Council of School Attorneys. The law is apparently untested in other areas, such as whether it's a conflict if a minor child living with a school board member is given a district job, said Melinda Selbee, an attorney at the Illinois Association of School Boards.

"The money they (minor kids) are making is so insignificant that I don't think a state's attorney is interested,'' Selbee added.

The Tribune was unable to determine whether relatives were the most qualified applicants because many districts were unable to provide the credentials of other applicants.

DuPage's School District 89 in Glen Ellyn provided records showing board member Frank Zak's wife was hired as a $10-an-hour special education aide in 2008, though she had no aide experience and two other applicants did. Zak's wife submitted her resignation, effective March 9, after the Tribune requested her hiring records.

Superintendent John Perdue said she had found another job and her resignation did not relate to the Tribune's inquiry. She met all qualifications, and her husband abstained on matters related to her, Perdue said.

But some board members in the region want tougher laws.

Robert Rossi, a board member in Bloom Township High School District 206, said he supports Chicago Heights' recent adoption of an anti-nepotism policy, and he'd like his board to ban hiring relatives. "What you're doing is … you are protecting your district from nepotism," he said. Rossi's mom once had a part-time cafeteria job, but no longer works in the district, he said.

Last spring, friction arose when Bloom board President Henry Drake's wife was hired as an accounts payable clerk.

Drake became president May 2, 2011. On May 3, the district posted a notice for an "anticipated or known opening" for an accounts payable clerk. Applicants had to express interest by May 5. On May 17, the board voted 4-3 to hire Drake's wife, with Rossi voting no.

Drake said his attorney advised that he could vote on his wife's employment. His wife had accounts payable experience in the Ford Heights district where he previously served on the board. She makes about $45,000.

Drake said if Bloom 206 wants to pursue an anti-nepotism policy, "I don't have a problem with that, I'd vote for it."

Qualified candidates

The Tribune focused on suburban districts where board members are elected and directly accountable to the public, unlike in Chicago, where the mayor appoints the school board. Suburban board members serve without pay, but they wield power over how tax dollars are spent.

The Tribune found that most relatives got jobs after their family members took office. Some employees already on the payroll got promotions and pay raises after relatives were elected, records show.

Universally, board members said they didn't help family members get jobs.

West Aurora School District 129 board President Neal Ormond said he talked to the principal considering his daughter's application for a paraprofessional job, saying to her: "I want to be very sure you understand that I am not going to suggest you hire her because of whose daughter she is. I am saying please don't hire her for those reasons." He abstained from voting on the hire.

His daughter had other opportunities, Ormond said, but she wanted to give back to her community by working in the district where she was schooled.

That sentiment was echoed on other boards.

In Lansing 158, longtime board member Jerome Kern's wife, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren have all been employed in the district.

"I have enough confidence in my own ethics and my own morality that I would never do anything unethical — I would never do anything to advance the cause of a relative,'' Kern said.

Records show his wife was hired as a teacher aide in 1979, during a one-year break in Kern's nearly 40 years on the board. She retired in 2005 and gets a $1,088 monthly pension while working part-time in the district.

Kern said his daughter-in-law was hired before she became a Kern. Records show Karen Hanssen became an aide Oct. 11, 1988. She married Kern's son on July 1, 1989. She became a teacher on Aug. 27, 1990, with Jerome Kern, as school board president, signing the contract.

Karen Kern recently spoke before the school board, stressing her credentials and emphasizing that neither she nor her son, a district custodian, ever received special treatment.

In Oak Lawn, Community High School District 218 board Vice President Marco Corsi said he's not aware of board members exerting influence to get relatives hired. His son teaches and his daughter-in-law works in security. At least five more board relatives have been employed.

Corsi's daughter-in-law wasn't hired the first time she applied for a job, he said, because she didn't meet the qualifications, including speaking Spanish. "They (school officials) said we'll hire her if I think we should. I couldn't respond positively or negatively. I said she'd probably be better for something else," Corsi said. She later got a security job.

Local bans

Some districts, such as Hinsdale Township High School District 86, have a policy that bars hiring family of board members, with limited exceptions. "We continue to hire excellent certified teachers, and other personnel — it does not limit us at this time," said Superintendent Nicholas Wahl.

Proviso District 209 instituted a nepotism policy in 2010; board President Welch's relatives were employed prior to that.

His brother was hired in 2005, two years after being charged in a cocaine case in Cook County that was dropped, according to court records. Welch said his brother has been arrested but not convicted. However, DuPage court records show Billy Welch pleaded guilty to felony retail theft in 1996. Welch said he was in law school then and was "not aware of everything that happened to my brother during that time as I was not living at home."

An arrest or conviction does not automatically bar school employment, with some exceptions. The theft case in which Billy Welch pleaded guilty to stealing baby shoes on Christmas Eve would not bar him from working in schools, state officials said. He got a 60-day work-release sentence and two years of probation.

On a Proviso job application in 2005, he left blank a question about whether he's been convicted of a violation of law other than a minor traffic violation. Billy Welch could not be reached for comment.

In Lansing, board member Arens said he's taking heat for his stance against family hiring.

The board held a closed-door meeting Wednesday at the request of Superintendent Cecilia Heiberger, who complained of Arens' "hostile behavior" in a number of areas, records show. The assistant superintendent accused Arens of trying to get a neighbor hired — which Arens denied.

"All they did was exaggerate half-truths to make me look bad … all they tried to do was intimidate me," Arens said.

School board President Joseph LaBella Jr. declined to comment about the closed meeting. His wife, two daughters and a son have been on the district payroll. "I have nothing do with who gets hired," LaBella earlier told the Tribune. Heiberger's nephew works as a district custodian. She said she didn't even know he applied.

"When I ran for school board," Arens said, "I didn't know I was joining a secret society that was an employment office for families."

Tribune reporter Joe Mahr contributed.

drado@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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