Local Board of Education May Amend Nepotism Policy

If the Community High School District 99 board revises its nepotism policy, members will be able to vote on collective bargaining agreements—even if their relatives work for the school system and stand to benefit from the contracts.

The board of education that oversees two Downers Grove high schools may amend its nepotism policy to allow a board member, whose brother works at one of the suburb’s schools as an instructor, to vote on an upcoming teachers union contract. 

Under the current policy Deborah Boyle, Community High School District 99 board vice-president, can’t vote or deliberate on a contract because her brother John Wander Jr. teaches social studies and is head football coach at Downers Grove North High School.

There’s no state law that prohibits board members from voting on matters relating to a relative’s wages, benefits or other terms of employment. Boards are free to establish their own guidelines. Most board members err on the side of caution, recusing themselves if there is even an appearance of a conflict of interest, says Ben Schwarm, associate executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.

But Boyle says she will cast a vote if the board changes its policy.

"I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest because my brother is one of 500 employees," Boyle says. "I’m not able to grant John anything that anyone else wouldn’t get."

Not every one on the board agrees.

Shortly after Boyle was elected in April 2009 the board blocked her from voting on a benefit package for district employees. And some board members don’t think she should weigh in on the teachers union contract, which expires June 30. Negotiations will begin in the coming months.

"I feel it’s a conflict of interest when you have a close family member that’s part of the bargaining unit," says Julia Beckman, a school board member who opposes Boyle’s involvement.

Boyle’s fight with the board is the latest in a string of clashes that began in 2006 when she sued District 99 for a boundary exemption so her son could attend Downers Grove North. Even though she lost in court Boyle thinks some board members hold a grudge.

"This is personal," says Boyle, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the newly created 81st district in the Illinois House of Representatives.

(The primary is March 20. If she wins that contest and then the general election in November 2012 she intends to remain on the board until her term ends April 2013.)

dist 99 board ed
Community High School District 99 board of education members, clockwise from top left: Michael Davenport, President William White, Vice President Deborah Boyle, Keith Matune, Terry Pavesich, Julia K. Beckman, and Nancy Kupka. (www.csd99.com)

Even though Board President William White says he isn’t sure if Boyle should vote on the teachers contract, he thinks the nepotism policy is worth reviewing.

"If we tell her she can’t vote, the people who voted for her have lost their voice," White says. "If my wife were a teacher, I wouldn’t vote on the contract. But a sibling? I don’t know. . . . How far do you go?"

The board’s policy, which dates back to 1976, has been amended four times in the last seven years, according to public records. The most recent revision in January 2009 clarified the definition of a relative.

A board member with a spouse, sibling, parent, child or other close relative employed by District 99 can’t deliberate or vote on matters "related to the relative’s wages, benefits, hours, terms and conditions of employment, including a collective bargaining agreement," according to the policy.

But that would change if the board approves proposed revisions, to be discussed at next month’s board meeting.

Under the proposed changes, Boyle and other members with a teacher or district employee relative couldn’t vote on matters personally relating to that individual, but they could vote on collective bargaining agreements and other employment matters that apply to all teachers or other employees.

Changes to the nepotism policy and the adoption of separate rules governing conflicts of interest require the board’s approval. White says he wants the matter settled before the teachers union and district of 5,265 students sit down at the bargaining table.

Boyle’s brother, John Wander Jr., a teachers union member, earns $88,841 a year, in addition to $10,647 for coaching football, says Jill Browning, a district spokeswoman. Boyle’s father, John Warner Sr., is a part-time equipment manager at Downers Grove North who earns $2,232, Browning says. He isn’t covered by the teachers union contract.

Watering down the policy wouldn’t make District 99 – which, aside from Downers Grove, draws students from Bolingbrook, Darien, Lisle, Naperville, Oak Brook, Westmont and Woodridge – an anomaly.

A check of neighboring districts show most have rules governing the hiring of employees related to a board member but little relating to potential conflicts of interest like the one in Downers Grove.

"We don’t have a policy in place," says Thomas Petersen, director of community relations at the Palatine-based Township High School District 211. "It would have to be an ethical decision on the board member’s part."

The material in this article originated with a tip through the BGA/WLS-AM "Whistleblower" tip line.