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A Curious Civics Lesson

In Bellwood, a superintendent is hired after campaigning for school board members. And she’s not the only school administrator in the region engaged in politics.

By Alden Loury/BGA

January 31, 2013 10:24 AM

undefinedIn a perfect world, government institutions would be free of politics, especially institutions like police and fire departments, courts, hospitals and schools, simply because they provide vital services to the public. And the quality of public safety, public health and public education should not be comprised by the whims of politicians.

Unfortunately, not only do we live in an imperfect world, we live in Illinois. So that means politics is just about everywhere, even in our schools.

Take the peculiar case of Bellwood School District 88 Supt. Phylistine Murphy, who campaigned for the school board members who would ultimately hire her in a newly created position and then later promote her to the district’s top job.

It’s probably hard for Murphy to escape politics since she’s a politician herself, serving as a Bellwood village trustee. District 88 serves more than 2,800 elementary-school children in Bellwood, Broadview, Hillside, Maywood, Melrose Park and Stone Park.

In the fall of 2010, Murphy and several other elected officials from Bellwood and Stone Park campaigned for three Bellwood school board candidates, circulating nominating petitions for Daisy Allen, Janice Johnson-Starks and Joe Madrid, public records show. Perfectly legal, but also a potential conflict of interest.

All three made the ballot and were subsequently elected in April 2011, beating seven challengers for whom Murphy and the other politicians did not circulate nominating petitions.

Four months later, Allen, Johnson-Starks and Madrid joined two incumbent members in voting to create a new position, chief operating officer, and hire Murphy to fill it with an annual salary of $120,000. A year later, those three new members also voted to make Murphy the superintendent, earning $165,000 a year.

That can be viewed as "pay-to-play" or tit-for-tat or quid pro quo. But whatever the term, the bottom line is the same: The appearance of a job and a promotion not based on professional competence but on political payback.

Through it all, Murphy doesn’t view her campaign work as a conflict of interest since she didn't work for the school district at that time nor did she have immediate plans to pursue a job there. Murphy had previously worked as a superintendent in District 88 and elsewhere. As a longtime Bellwood resident and school administrator, Murphy said she envisioned returning to District 88 in some capacity "at some point, eventually, before I retired. I didn’t know that it would be now."

And Allen and Madrid said merit – not political considerations – prompted the board to re-hire and then promote Murphy. In fact, they indicated the hire was less about Murphy and more about problems the board was having with the superintendent Murphy ultimately replaced. (Johnson-Starks said she was unaware Murphy had done political work for her, but declined further comment other than to say the district needed a chief operating officer at the time Murphy was hired.)

In any event, Murphy is certainly not alone in the belief that it’s OK for school superintendents to be politically active.

An analysis of campaign finance records by the Better Government Association found at least 15 Cook County school superintendents made political contributions while in those jobs or before they were hired. Sometimes those donations went to the very school board members to whom the superintendents report.

Aside from Murphy, who donated to the Bellwood political party she and at least one of the school board members she campaigned for belong to, the donor-superintendents include: Sarah Jerome of Arlington Heights School District 25; Donna Adamic of Cicero School District 99; and Raymond Lauk of Cook County School District 130.

Lauk said he doesn’t donate to the political funds of his school board members, but likes to maintain close relationships with government officials in four towns that comprise District 130: Alsip, Blue Island, Crestwood and Robbins. As such, he paid $200 in August 2010 to attend a golf outing sponsored by the Progressive Party, a political committee supporting Blue Island village officials.

Adamic, who was hired as superintendent by District 99 in 2008, has made six $500 contributions to Cicero Town President Larry Dominick since then. As a superintendent, Adamic said she believes as a community leader it’s important for her to display leadership by supporting nonprofit organizations and political leaders. "I’m an example for my community, where I work and where I live," Adamic said.

Dominick has strong ties to the District 99 school board where his son, Derek, has been a member since 2011. Three of Adamic’s donations to Larry Dominick were made after his son was elected to the school board.

Meanwhile, Jerome said superintendents are still citizens and voters with a stake in their communities. That’s why she said she gave District 25 School Board President David Page $500 in July 2012 during his unsuccessful run for Illinois Senate, state records show. "I think I’d heard somewhere that in our role as educators, we don’t lose our rights to have a voice," Jerome said.

Page said he didn’t see the donation as a conflict of interest or as an attempt to curry favor. In fact, had he won, he would have resigned from the school system.

Some superintendent donations make sense: One top school administrator contributed to a political fund created to help pass a referendum in his district; and some superintendents contributed to a political action committee serving school administrators.

However, giving to school board members or political powerbrokers with influence in their districts is a bad idea, even if it’s allowable, because it opens the door to politicizing a public-sector job that has no business being politicized. Of course kids and their futures are at stake.

But so is money.

Back in District 88, where there’s been a revolving door of superintendents and other high-ranking administrators in recent years, insiders with knowledge of the operation say politics is eroding the quality of education and burning taxpayer dollars. For example, they tell us the district has transferred $800,000 from its education fund to its tort fund since 2010, in part to handle the political fallout of legal fees and settlement agreements resulting from lawsuits and discrimination complaints filed by departed employees.

Perhaps the suits could have been avoided if the district wasn't so politicized.

This analysis was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Alden Loury. He can be reached at (312) 821-9036 or aloury@bettergov.org.

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