D209 braces for changes made in fell swoop – Forest Park Review

During a special meeting on Feb. 27, the District 209 school board voted on a series of massive changes proposed by Supt. James Henderson that included the non-renewal and reclassification of roughly four dozen administrative and educational support personnel positions.

The board also voted to bring food and transportation services in-house; to begin the process of outsourcing information technology (IT) services; and to start the process of possibly withdrawing from the Proviso Area for Exceptional Children (PAEC) Cooperative.

The proposals prompted significant pushback from parents, employees and even some board members — all of whom expressed shock at the agenda items, arguing that such sweeping change was happening with barely any advance notice, little input from district stakeholders, not much planning and hardly any documentation.

Board members in support of the proposals, however, were just as shocked at the opposition to the changes. They said the realignments had been discussed at previous meetings and a board retreat. They also said the changes will be positive for the district and will benefit students.

The meeting happened at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday. The agenda was posted online but did not include any hyperlinks directing the public to accompanying documentation for each agenda item — a feature common to the board’s regular meetings but uncommon for committee and special meetings.

D209 board president Rodney Alexander | Photo provided

All of the changes except one were enacted by a 4-2 vote, with board President Rodney Alexander, and members Della Patterson, Theresa Kelly and Sam Valtierrez voting in favor of the changes.

Members Amanda Grant and Claudia Medina voted against the changes. Member Ned Wagner abstained from voting on the PAEC agenda item before leaving the meeting early due to another commitment.

Thirty-nine administrative positions reclassified, employees must re-apply

With no supporting documentation made available to the public, the D209 board paved the way for the superintendent to make sweeping administrative changes by voting to reclassify the positions of dozens of employees in the district.

In total, 39 D209 staff members at various levels of administration were affected, including the principals of PMSA and Proviso East, and the assistant principal at Proviso West.

D209 board member Theresa Kelly

William Breisch, the principal of the Proviso Math and Science Academy, and seven other administrative employees whose contracts are not expiring at the end of the school year or are tenured, were reclassified to teaching positions.

Along with Breisch, the following employees were reclassified as teachers: Fred Aguirre (assistant principal of student support at Proviso East), Joseph Kosina (assistant principal at Proviso West), Ernest Travis (a dean at Proviso West), Dylester Palm (a dean at Proviso East), Carla Williams (a lead counselor at Proviso West), Alexander Aschoff and Heather Wickey.

Another 31 employees, including Dr. Patrick Hardy, the principal of Proviso East, whose contracts are expiring at the end of the 2020-21 school year, are not being renewed.

In executive session, the board discussed new positions and a new administrative structure, but this was not provided to the public. Medina and Grant voted against approving new positions. Wagner wasn’t present.

Board members Grant and Medina voted against the reclassifications and terminations. Wagner wasn’t present for this part of the meeting. Alexander, Kelly, Patterson and Valtierrez voted in favor.

D209 board member Amanda Grant

Medina expressed concern that the people being reclassified were not made aware of what their new salaries would be, and that losing so many collective years of experiences and “institutional knowledge” would be detrimental to the district.

“I think that this is a mistake,” Medina said. “We don’t have any descriptions of any of the new classified positions for us to make this determination. There is just a page [in the board packet] with a list of the reorganization. There are no descriptions. For each one I was told I was I would receive the information describing each one of these positions, and yet I have nothing. It is a mistake for us to be voting on this at this moment.”

Patterson made a point of asking Henderson if he had provided board members with a “salary analysis,” and he said he had on Jan. 30, the date of the board retreat. Medina pointed out, however, that a salary analysis is not the same as position descriptions.

The restructuring was purportedly done based on audits performed earlier in the school year. Henderson first made reference to these audits during the Oct. 13 board meeting.

“The audit team will come in and take a look at technology, take a look at human resources, finance and above all, academics,” Henderson said during that meeting. “And we’re expecting that cost to be nominal, not even enough to bring to you, because I have done a lot of the work. But we need experts in the area of finance, academics, to help us sort all of that out. And then we’ll present those findings to you in December.”

During the Oct. 13 meeting, when Medina asked what “nominal” meant, in terms of the cost, Henderson responded with, “Less than $25,000 each,” meaning that he didn’t need board approval for the audits since the amount was less than that which would require board approval.

D209 board Member Claudia Medina

Those findings were never presented to the board, however. Not in December, and not in subsequent meetings. And they were never discussed publicly in a board meeting until Feb. 27, during which sweeping changes were made based on these reports that have not been published on the district’s website and were not made available to the press.

In an Oct. 29 response to a FOIA request for a copy of the contracts of the auditors, the district responded: “The District states that the current employees: Dr. Nicole Williams and Dr. James L. Henderson will complete most of the transition audit. Also Dr. Henderson is currently interviewing candidates to complete the team in the areas of Technology and Finance.”

The other employees affected by reclassification or termination:

  • Scott Anderson
  • Dr. Alexander Brandon
  • Dr. Nicholas Browder
  • Dr. Melvin Caldwell (dean at Proviso East)
  • Salandra Crockett (dean at Proviso East)
  • Michelle Hassan
  • Brian Hesik (department chair of Mathematics, CTE, Health at PMSA)
  • Dr. Maxine Jeremiah (assistant principal at Proviso West)
  • Robyn Lee-Diaz
  • Angela Marino
  • Stephen Ngo
  • Marilyn Rouse
  • Daniel Savage
  • Dr. Nicole Williams (deputy superintendent for Transformation)
  • Michael Wollney
  • Dr. Jeremy Burnham (manager of English Language Learners)
  • Cristin Chiganos (department chair of English and World Languages at PMSA)
  • Daniel Johnson (assistant superintendent of Human Resources)
  • Dr. Greta Mitchell Williams (Curriculum, Assessment & Program Evaluation)
  • Antionette Rayburn (manager of Career Readiness and Student Programming)
  • Vanessa Schmitt (director of Specialized Services).
  • Tracy Avant-Bey (technology director)
  • Luis Correa (assistant network manager)
  • James Krolik (lead network administrator)
  • Jeffrey Leyba (senior network engineer)
  • Alfred McDonald (maintenance department at Proviso East)
  • Donald Mobley (security supervisor)
  • Levertis Robinson (building security supervisor at Proviso West)
  • LT Taylor (district lead buildings and grounds manager)
  • Nicole Wilson (district communications director)

Outsourcing the technology department; bringing transportation and food services in-house

Some of the terminations made during the Feb. 27 meeting were of technology administrators in the district, including Technology Director Tracey Avant-Bey.

Additionally, the board voted to approve the issuance of a request for proposal to outsource “technology management” after Medina’s motion to table that vote failed, along with votes on two other agenda items: bringing both food services and student transportation in district.

Grant said she had heard about food services and transportation in a “Chat and Chew” in January with the superintendent. And although the ideas had been brought up before, specifics, such as budgets and timelines, had never been provided, nor had the public been able to give feedback.

Grant added that she also did not see an audit that the superintendent said was conducted into the district’s IT department.

D209 board member Della Patterson

According to an employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, someone from outside of the district had conducted an IT audit late last year where an auditor asked IT employees a series of questions.

There was a report drafted, but the superintendent has not shared that report with IT personnel, according to the employee. The employee said 18 people work in the IT department and anywhere from six to eight of them are members of Proviso Council, Local 571.

“This may very well be the first step toward the privatization of the tech department but the decision to do such is not what is being considered tomorrow,” said Thomas Smith, field service director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, in an email statement sent Friday.

 “If the board decides to take such action to privatize they will need to follow the procedures defined in [the state school code]. The code specifies written notices, public hearings and required benefits for employees among other things before privatizing public services. That said, the union is opposed to privatization of public services. It is the union’s belief that it is better for public services to be provided by public agencies, like school boards, rather than private companies.”

Brion Grant, a union representative for Local 571 who works security at Proviso East, said many IT workers were afraid that they’ll lose their jobs and pleaded with the administration to listen to the workers and their concerns.

“When IT is called into a meeting and when they come away from that meeting and feel like their job is being threatened, they’re hurt,” he said. “And a lot of us feel like that was the beginning of something we might not want to see coming, which is the outsourcing of jobs.”

“It seems like he’s getting rid of everybody,” the employee requesting anonymity said, referencing Henderson. “We are all afraid we’re going to be unemployed by July.”

D209 board member Sam Valtierrez

“We need our time to do our due diligence,” Grant said at Saturday’s meeting. “I’m asking that we table these until we have a chance to do that.”

“It’s an indictment against every board member that says they don’t know what’s going on up here, because the rest of us do,” Alexander responded. “There may be some need for clarification … but we’re not voting up here about stuff we don’t know.

“For people that want to mischaracterize our commitment to this district, to these schools, so be it,” Alexander added. “I could really care less. I could really care less what you think.”

Alexander said improvements made in the district speak for themselves and for the work that the board does.

Grant said she thought the board needed to see the results of the aforementioned audits that Henderson had commissioned prior to making decisions based on information in those analyses.

“I would like to know where those audits are,” Grant said during the meeting. “We have a snippet of them in what was provided to us at the board retreat. I have never seen a final product. And more importantly, I don’t believe the public has seen a final product.”

It wasn’t the issues themselves that gave Grant pause, she said; it was the lack of information presented to both board members and the public before the vote was made. In terms of bringing food and the bus service in-house, “I’m all for it,” Grant said, adding that the district would have better control.

“But I am saying in order to make an informed decision as a board member, and in order to be transparent with the public, these items need to be information items a month at least before we vote on it,” Grant said.

She added that as someone who has attended every meeting, she “had no idea” that these items were coming up for vote on Saturday.

“I had no chance to do comparison with other school districts who have outsourced IT,” Grant said. “What does that look like? How much does that cost?”

Grant also said that the public, which had 48 hours or less to see the agenda, were looking at these items for the first time in many cases.

“That can’t be healthy to do business as a board,” Grant said.

Alexander said the process shouldn’t get in the way of progress and “just because we didn’t like the way Doc [Henderson] did it,” it doesn’t mean that the board shouldn’t approve items brought forth by the superintendent.

“This board still has the final decision,” Alexander said, stating that when Henderson brings a contract to the board for approval, if they don’t like it, they can still vote it down.

“We have the final say on whatever Henderson brings up here,” he said.

But only Medina and Grant voted to table the three items. And only Grant and Medina voted against each of the three items, all of which passed.

District weighs withdrawing some students from PAEC Collaborative

During the Feb. 27 meeting, the D209 board also voted 4-2 on a motion to “begin the process of withdrawing” from the Proviso Area for Exceptional Children (PAEC) Collaborative.

Alexander, Kelly, Patterson and Valtierrez voted in favor of the motion while Grant and Medina voted against it. Wagner abstained.

The vote happened after a tense exchange between some members over the wording of the motion and whether the vote was necessary since the superintendent already has the authority to explore the effectiveness of PAEC.

Medina wanted to know if the district had conducted a cost analysis before voting on the motion to withdraw. Alexander said that the word “withdraw” should not have been in the motion but would not grant Medina’s request to remove the word from the motion.

“What if we change the language?” Medina said.

“What if you just accept the explanation,” Alexander responded. “Are we going to table this for two more weeks because of a word? [….] The wording is confusing, but we’ve clarified that.”

Henderson said that the administration “is just simply asking the board to allow us the opportunity to begin the process of planning for withdrawing from PAEC and prepare a resolution to that [effect], but it’s a long, drawn-out process. [If we were to do this], we would have to inform PAEC and the state at least one year ahead of time. I was just simply asking to do a deep dive into PAEC and then make a recommendation to the board.”

The board’s attorney said that investigating the feasibility of withdrawing from PAEC “doesn’t require an action item,” but board members in support of the motion said that Henderson was erring on the side of transparency by bringing the matter before the board.

“This is transparency that he’s asking the board beforehand and when we’re talking about withdrawing students from PAEC, I believe we have 200 students [who attend PAEC and] he’s talking about 84 students, not the entire student population, at PAEC. This is a specific group of students he’s speaking of.”

D209 board member Ned Wagner

Grant said that she interpreted the action item before the board as saying that the superintendent had already conducted a degree of analysis into the possibility of withdrawing some students from PAEC, including examining the impact on families, personnel and the budget.

“When I read the first paragraph, it seems to me that some of this has already been done, but not yet presented,” she said. “So, I think we’re putting the cart before the horse.”

Many of the community members who spoke during public comment on Feb. 27 echoed Grant’s and Medina’s outrage.

“The suggestion of a new superintendent from out of state just looking at the numbers and thinking he can go ahead and say, ‘Let’s exit PAEC’ without having all the facts or the history is ludicrous,” said Katherine Sorensen of Maywood. “Parents have to have a voice in this … You need to bring parents and students in, because they’re the ones impacted.”

Public comment cut off

During the public comment section of the meeting, one PMSA teacher was allowed to address the board in person. All other comments were required to be submitted via an online form and be in video format.

But Alexander was inconsistent in enforcing what he said was board policy that the videos needed to show the face of the speaker.

During the meeting, the beginning of a video comment from teacher’s union president Maggie Riley was played, but Alexander cut it off because the viewers couldn’t see her in the video.

Just a few minutes earlier, however, he had allowed an entire video comment from a resident to be played that did not show the speaker’s face.

Upon cutting off Riley’s video, Alexander explained why he had made that decision.

“The purpose of providing a video is to be able to see you face to face,” Alexander said. He added, “If we’re gonna hold the public to those types of standards, we definitely expect that from our employees, and especially from our union, so we’re going to cease and desist.”

During the new business part of the meeting, Medina brought up the submission of public comment as something that needed to be addressed, stating that some people don’t have the capability of sending in a video and requesting that a photo be allowed along with written comment. She also stated that she didn’t agree with Riley’s comments being “censored.”

Alexander suggested she work with Henderson to address concerns related to public comment, “if you’re willing to work with us” he added.

“I’m always willing to work with you,” Medina said.

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” said Alexander.

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