Lyons School District 103 has a new human resources director, but it’s not the person Superintendent Kristopher Rivera recommended for the position.
On Aug. 27, a divided school board voted 4 to 3 to hire Brian Towne to the position which has been vacant since Kim Ontiveros left the district on July 1 to take a job with the East Aurora school district.
Towne’s hiring was muscled through by the school board majority of board President Jorge Torres and new members Vito Campanile, Oliva Quintero and Winifred Rodriguez.
Those four board members were all elected in April, Torres for a second term, on a slate supported and bankrolled by Lyons Village President Christopher Getty.
Towne is a former chief of staff for Cook County Sherriff Tom Dart. He worked for the Cook County Sherriff’s Office from 2003 until 2014, starting under Sheriff Michael Sheahan. He became a senior policy advisor to Dart and then Dart’s chief of staff from 2010 to 2014.
While at the sheriff’s office Towne worked with former District 103 Human Resources Director Marty Stack, who was assistant general counsel from 2009 until 2011.
Stack became District 103’s first-ever human resources director in 2015 when he was hired by a school board majority that was then, like it is now, made up of members supported by Getty. After losing a bid for a spot on the Cook County Board of Review in 2016, Stack resigned from the human resources post in 2017.
Lyons Village Manager Thomas Sheehan is the brother of former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan. Towne served as the treasurer of Michael Sheahan’s campaign committee from 2005 to 2007. Both Dart and Sheahan come from the 19th Ward in Chicago.
After leaving the sheriff’s office, Towne worked for a little over two years as the chief administrative officer/chief external affairs officer for the Acero charter school network in Chicago.
Towne then worked for a year as the director of policy for the Illinois Housing Development Authority, leaving that job in 2018 to open his own consulting firm. He served as the campaign manager for Paul Vallas’ campaign for mayor of Chicago earlier this year.
Towne also is treasurer and chairman of Vallas’ campaign committee, which is $19,000 in debt according to the latest filing with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Vallas, who served as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 until 2001, praised Towne.
“I thought he was very effective, all things considered, given my limited resources,” Vallas said. “He was widely respected, strongly recommended by a number of prominent people.”
Burt Odelson, who leads the Odelson Sterk law from that represents both District 103 and the Village of Lyons, also represented the Vallas mayoral campaign.
District 103 school board members Sharon Anderson, Marge Hubacek and Shannon Johnson voted against hiring Towne. Before the vote they asked for a closed session to discuss Towne’s qualifications, complaining that they had just been handed Towne’s resume as they sat down for the Aug. 27 meeting and had not had a chance to review it. Towne’s contract was approved before Johnson’s motion for a closed session could be considered.
“In 13 years [on the school board] I’ve never hired an administrator without discussing it in closed session,” Anderson said.
Towne was not Superintendent Kristopher Rivera’s choice for the position. A few months ago, Rivera made a tentative verbal offer of the job to Julie Grohn, who currently works as the human resources director for North Lawndale College Prep High School and used to work as the human resources director for Rich Township High School District 227.
But Torres would not allow a motion to hire Grohn be placed on an agenda, stalling the hire and insisting Rivera interview more candidates.
Towne was interviewed for the job a few weeks ago by Torres, Rivera and an attorney. At the Aug. 27 board meeting, Rivera confirmed that Towne was not his recommended candidate and that Towne had applied for the job after his verbal job offer to Grohn had been made.
Johnson said Rivera told her that Towne’s hiring was placed on the agenda after he received an affidavit signed by Torres, Campanile, Quintero and Rodriguez, stating their support for Towne.
Close to 50 people attended the school board meeting, including two close Getty allies: Kyle Leonard, Getty’s assistant, and Ryan Grace, the village of Lyons’ director of public works. He formerly worked as the maintenance director for District 103 before being forced out.
The three board members voting against Towne criticized the majority for ignoring Rivera’s recommendation.
“I feel bad for him,” Johnson said of Rivera. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he walked away. If I was him, I’d walk away.”
Hubacek said she believed the hiring of Towne was politically motivated and meant to give Getty influence over who gets hired in District 103.
“It gives the village politicians, Getty, control over everyone we hire,” Hubacek said, noting that political hiring could be used most often in jobs such as custodians or aides. “From now on everything that’s hired will be suspect.”
Towne rejected the notion that he would participate in political hiring.
“Throughout my career, I have embraced reform and transparency while working tirelessly on the front lines implementing and executing best practices,” Towne said in an email to the Landmark. “In fact, I initiated and spearheaded Sheriff Dart’s efforts to develop transparent employment policies and procedures to ensure the Sheriff’s Office hiring and other employment practices were fair, merit-based and free from political influence. As a result, and with approval of the federal court-appointed monitor, the sheriff’s office was the first office dismissed from the decades-old Shakman decree in 2011 by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.”
Towne will be paid an annual salary of $115,000, which is $5,000 more than Grohn was going to earn.
“Why are we paying the man $5,000 more than the woman?” Hubacek asked.
Torres said that he preferred Towne because he interviewed better than Grohn did. Torres said that he didn’t have confidence in past practices and processes.
“I do not have any confidence in the previous process that was used before,” Torres said. “I just want to break up away from all [past] practices. We promised a change. Change is not easy.”
Vallas said he believes the Towne is well qualified for the human resources job.
“He’s a pretty knowledgeable guy,” Vallas said. “He understands budget and finance, he understands human resources. Obviously, his work at the sheriff’s office reflects that.”
The district is still without a business manager. That position also has been vacant since July 1. Rivera’s recommendation for business manager, Donald McKinney, has also been prevented from reaching a board vote by Torres and was not placed on Aug. 27 agenda.
This story has been changed to reflect that Martin Stack resigned as human resources director in 2017. The Landmark apologizes for the error.