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.