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Elaine Johnson: Nepotism Debate Looks Like Politics as Usual

The District 99 policy, currently up for revision, has a long and checkered history.

Like many of you, I’ve been watching with interest the public debate surrounding the proposed revisions to the District 99 nepotism policy.

While a lot of heat has been generated on and other venues—TribLocal, Facebook, Twitter—what’s largely missing from the commentary is a necessary historical perspective. Anyone who has watched the District 99 board as closely as I have over the past few years is aware that "nepotism" has been a major issue since Debbie Boyle became a candidate for the board in 2007 and won election in 2009.

Boyle’s brother is a social studies teacher and head football coach at North High School—a fact her opponents seized upon during both of her board campaigns. Indeed, during a 2009 candidates’ forum at North, member and former board President Julia Kennedy Beckman extravagantly claimed that due to her relationship to a district teacher, Boyle would be unable to vote on 80 percent of the matters that came before the board.

It was just one of many attempts to wield the policy, which was first adopted by the board in 1976 under the heading “Employment of Relatives of Board Members.” Back then and for the next 28 years, the policy simply stated “the following relatives of members of the Board of Education shall be ineligible for employment by the school district during the board member’s term of office: parents, spouses, children or their spouses, brothers or their spouses, sisters or their spouses.”

The policy was amended in 2004 to prevent district employees from working under the direct supervision of an immediate family member, and to further define “immediate family.”

The policy was revised three more times—in 2007, 2008 and 2009—to require a board member with a relative already employed by the district to publicly disclose the nature of the relationship prior to deliberations and to recuse himself or herself from deliberating or voting on wages, benefits, hours or terms of conditions or any matter affecting the relative, including a collective bargaining agreement. In its current state, the policy is just within, and potentially outside, of legal and constitutional limits, attorney Todd Faulkner told the board at its Oct. 17 meeting.

Coincidentally, Boyle ran for the board in 2007 and 2009. Following her election in April 2009, the board renewed its interest in the nepotism policy on several occasions:

  • Shortly before Boyle was seated, the board held a closed session meeting, on April 27, 2009, to “discuss the relationship of the nepotism policy to certain employees and collective bargaining matters,” according to District 99 minutes.  

The Downers Grove Reporter and my fellow DGreport.com blogger, Mark Thoman, suggested the closed session was a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act and called for the release of the minutes concerning the policy discussion. In a response to Thoman’s FOIA request, the Illinois Attorney General’s office cautioned the board “to be mindful that discussion of the effect of the nepotism policy on a board member, as opposed to an employee, may be inappropriate.”

However, the AG’s office stopped short of requiring the board to hand over its closed-session recordings, leaving the question ultimately unresolved.

  • During the board’s May 18, 2009, meeting, Boyle was prohibited from voting on the district's Employee Benefits Program after a five-member majority voted to enforce the nepotism policy.
  • At a June 1, 2009, workshop meeting, Faulkner presented tentative guidelines for the application of the district nepotism policy, in response to the board's request. It cost the district as much as $10,000 to have the guidelines drawn up.
  • On July 20, 2009, the board voted to accept the guidelines in a meeting that ended abruptly when  a resident challenged members as to their own potential conflicts of interest. Earlier in the meeting, Boyle had suggested, “This is not a nepotism policy; this is a conflict of interest policy under the guise of nepotism.” The meeting was covered by the Chicago Tribune, which followed up its report with a July 25, 2009, editorial suggesting the board’s action looked like “a petty attempt by some people to marginalize an elected official whom they don't like. They're depriving Downers Grove residents of their rightful representation on the board.” 
  • With the nepotism guidelines in place, the board nevertheless chose not to exercise them on May 17, 2010, when it allowed Boyle to vote on the district’s Employee Benefits Program. No explanation was offered.
  • Boyle also was allowed to vote on the Employee Benefit Program on May 16, 2011.

That’s the unvarnished history, bringing us to the current discussion surrounding the proposed policy revisions. This is also where politics enter the picture—because Boyle is not just a District 99 board member; she’s also a candidate for the 81st district House seat.

At Monday’s meeting, board member Terry Pavesich, who in May had lashed out at both and , repeated a charge that her former colleague Megan Schroeder had earlier posted to Facebook, claiming White told her Boyle had a “boatload of attorneys” ready to sue the district if the policy wasn’t changed.  It’s a telling statement—not for its accuracy, which White, and common sense, dispute—but as fresh evidence of the sort of over-the-top, personal attacks that Boyle has been subjected to since she first ran for the school board.

What is utterly lost in the current discussion is that Boyle was duly elected by voters who were well aware of her relationship to a district teacher but apparently found it less than compelling. Marginalizing Boyle won’t go over well with those taxpayers, whose interests also must be safeguarded.

Finally, as a personal aside, I’ll observe that if nepotism is , I would expect to see the current policy’s vocal supporters working to ensure that other local governmental bodies add similar policies to their books. Until that happens, this episode, like so much in Downers Grove’s recent history, will just be politics as usual.

Kent Frederick October 20, 2011 at 07:03 PM
Here's something to think about. What are the nepotism policies as the elementary districts that feed into District 99? If they aren't as strict as the District 99 policy, then shouldn't supporters of the current District 99 policy try to get the elementary districts in line?
Mark Thoman October 20, 2011 at 09:42 PM
I suppose the screechers will be out in force having their panties all twisted up. You're wrecking their carefully contrived narratives/memes with all of this. Good for all of DG that you are. I look forward to more, and for the shills and witless tools trying to put you in your place yet again. The Reporter also questioned the BOE 99 violation of the IL OMA. I don't know if or how they followed up on it. If readers want the whole timeline as it happened www.dgreport.com has kept it's archive up and running. You can access over 150 posts by EJ and me by looking under the topics for 'District 99', or by searching 'Nepotism'. Bon appetit. I look forward to the day this is all set straight, all the political BS is put away, and BOE meetings become focused on students and learning instead of politics and personal vendettas.
Mark Thoman October 20, 2011 at 10:05 PM
http://www.dgreport.com/index.php/2009/05/31/99-foia-appeal-also-denied/ This is a link to the letter I was sent denying my FOIA denial appeal. Read it and you'll understand what I do: the entire Nepotism Policy was crafted for John Wander, his father (the two employees) and Debbie Boyle (the then elected but as yet unseated BOE member). They were the whole focus of the meeting, whose verbatim minutes were sealed and then destroyed at the earliest opportunity.
William Vollrath October 20, 2011 at 10:41 PM
Exactly Mark. Those responsible should resign from the Board and replacements named by the remaining Board members and District superintendent.
Wendy Foster October 21, 2011 at 12:08 PM
Thanks for objectively reporting on a pretty complicated history Elaine. Glad you're back!!

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