A standing room-only crowd filled the boardroom at the first official business meeting of the newly elected Lyons Elementary District 103 school board on May 7.
The “emergency” meeting called by the new board swept out former employees and the school district’s attorneys and hired the services of a new interim superintendent.
The new majority got everything it wanted, but not without minority veteran board members protesting that school board hiring protocols were not being followed.
Parents and teachers in the audience spoke in favor of and against the new board, and begged them to “keep our children first.”
Departing George Washington Middle School Principal Johnny Billingsley complained the majority candidates “slandered my name” by misrepresenting his reason for leaving the district to take a job in Lemont, using a photo from one his online social media accounts.
As the board discussed replacing attorneys Robbins and Schwartz, board member Mark Camasta, also an attorney, grilled Burt Odelson of Odelson and Sterk about the firm’s experience with school law. Odelson said his firm worked for numerous school districts, rattling off several elementary and high school districts in Oak Lawn, Orland and Tinley Park.
Camasta read a statement saying he would not vote to approve the change in lawyers, because he was not convinced Odelson and Sterk would be able to represent both the village of Lyons and the district without a conflict of interest.
Odelson shot back that he had experience with crafting intergovernmental agreements that saved taxpayers money. He insisted his firm would withdraw if a legal conflict arose.
“It won’t come back to bite you; it will bite me before it bites you,” Odelson said. “It’s my license, as you well know.”
Odelson also said the firm did not charge an “old-school” retainer, but billed hourly at $175 per hour.
The board voted 4 to 2 to hire Odelson and Sterk, with Sharon Anderson abstaining. Joanne Schaefer and Camasta voted against the measure.
The board also voted to terminate the contracts of its dual interim superintendents, Patrick Patt and Griff Powell, although board member Joanne Schaeffer pointed out the two had already resigned.
“You’re asking me to fire someone who doesn’t work here?” she asked.
Schaeffer also complained about the procedure for vetting the proposed new interim superintendent, Kyle Hastings, noting the board was supposed to have candidate information before the meeting.
“You have it,” said school board President Mike Bennett, holding up a folder.
Anderson said the board looked at nine candidates in a previous superintendent search. Schaeffer said the ideal time to find the best superintendents was in December or January.
Kyle Hastings, a retired school administrator and 23-year president of the village of Orland Hills introduced himself to the board and audience. Hastings is a Cook County political figure with close ties to Republican 17th District Cook County Commissioner Liz Doody Gorman, of Orland Park. He also serves on the PACE Board of Directors, overseeing a $200 million budget, he said.
In conversation with the board and audience members during public comment, Hastings described his career as a retired superintendent who served in Bloom Township High School District 206 and Bellwood District 88. Asked whether he was recruited by board members before they were sworn in, he said he applied for the position when he heard there was an opening.
Hastings described his strongpoints as collaboration with school boards, raising test scores, and student safety.
“That’s probably why I’m one of the best superintendents around,” he said.
“Um, I Googled,” said Schaeffer, referring to Hasting’s career of mixed success.
When asked why he was let go in the middle of his contract from District 88, Hastings said he was on the wrong side of a political battle after an election. He also said he drew criticism because he wanted to give “free and reduced lunch to every child in the school.”
He said District 88 asked him to return after a subsequent election reshuffled the board’s composition. He declined. He also said he was offered a job in Bloom Township’s elementary district, which he also declined.
Because he is retired, Hastings is only allowed to work 100 days per school year without affecting his ability to draw a state pension.
Hastings said because he had a great crew in village government in Orland Hills, his job as village president didn’t interfere with his work as a superintendent.
Audience members voiced both support for the new board and complained about the board’s rocky start.
“How can you discipline children when you’ve broken a lot of policies?” asked one audience member.
Another woman worried about the sign-in sheets for the board’s first meeting April 30, stating they were whisked away by a village employee. Referring to Lyons’ reputation for rough political campaigns, she said, “I have concerns that people who signed them in good faith might come to harm.”
Another parent said the new board members came off as arrogant. “We as parents are upset and taken aback. Your job is for this district and our kids.”
Bryan McPherson, a parent of a student at Costello Elementary, said the schools were “not great.”
“Go ahead and hiss, but I know there are some people in this room who are politically connected from the other side,” he said. “Let’s wait and see,”
Pointing at Odelson and Hastings, he said, “This guy killed it, and this guy killed it. I have confidence in this board.”
Billingsley, the outgoing principal of Washington Middle School who was in the audience, called the board meeting “a spectacle.”
He said he wished his sixth- through eighth-grade students were at the meeting because, “this would be a hands-on example of Tammany Hall and political machines.”
Billingsley complained the Parents for Student Excellence slate candidates’ promotional material used his picture to claim the district was in “chaos.”
“I can tell you, the district was not in chaos until now,” he said.
After the meeting, board President Mike Bennett said the parents and staff needed to have patience with a new board.
“People are nervous every time there’s change,” he said. “I think they’ll settle down and see it’s not the end of the world.”
Bennett said the board would be looking at improvements in test scores as a goal, even though test scores were “not a reflection of the intelligence of our students.”
“They’re a goal,” he said. “We look forward to sitting down with the new interim superintendent, who will have a lot of ideas to make improvements.”