New SD 227 board questions use of PR firm
By Sarah Zylstra Correspondent August 14, 2013 2:40PM
Updated: September 15, 2013 6:35AM
The bitter political division within the Rich Township High School District 227 Board is getting uglier by the month.
The school board’s majority, which gained control after the April election and fired the superintendent in June, has submitted information to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office regarding the previous board’s possible misuse of district funds, according to the board president.
The board took the action at a meeting last Saturday after getting a report from the board attorney on the use of a public relations firm to promote the district and particularly Betty Owens, the previous board president, during a campaign year, according to current president Cheryl Coleman.
Owens received a Phenomenal Woman award in May 2012, which was mentioned in the District 227 newsletter and in some newspapers, including the SouthtownStar.
“To me, that’s partially why she got re-elected,” said Coleman, who said the newsletter went to as many as 44,000 homes. “Above her face, it says ‘World Class in Action’ (in the newsletter story). That has nothing to do with the school (district). She just took advantage of it to win the election.”
Owens was not present at the Aug. 10 meeting where Coleman and board members Antoine Bass, Delores Woods and David Morgan voted to send the public relations firm’s invoices and the attorney’s report to the prosecutor’s office. Board members Emanuel Imoukhuede and Shelia Friday, the other members of the board minority, also were absent.
“I am just appalled,” Owens said about the board’s action. “I have not used any district funds for any personal gain. That’s just not true.”
Publicist Jerry Thomas produced the news release on Owens award. He pointed out that Owens won the award, and the articles appeared, several months before Owens announced that she would run for re-election and nearly a year before the board election last April.
“The (promotion of) Betty Owens being a Phenomenal Woman was an attempt ... to start promoting some of the good work of the board,” Thomas said. “Because there had been so much negativity among the board, we wanted to start getting information out there.”
Coleman said the board is also questioning why District 227’s contract with Thomas, who billed the district about $134,000 over about 18 months, was never approved by the school board.
Bass said only the former board majority, including Owens and Imoukhuede, were aware of Thomas’ contract.
“If he was doing this for the board, why didn’t he ever say anything to the (full) board for a year and a half?” said Bass, who was elected in April. “Why was it approved to pay him in the first place? (The board) never voted on him. There were no minutes that he was approved to do anything for us.”
A review of Thomas’ invoices shows that he was paid excessively, according to Coleman and Bass. For example, records show that District 227 paid him as much money to promote Rich South High School’s band trip to London for the Olympics — $35,000 — as it cost the 16 students to go on the trip, Bass said.
“We spent more money with him than he did raising money,” he said.
Thomas defended his work for the district, including promoting the band trip, and said the board’s criticism of him and accusation against Owens were politically motivated.
“There are a lot of things being presented by the board ... that are totally inaccurate,” he said. “It’s used in a way to mislead the public, and it is my hope that the accurate information will be presented to the community so the community will know that, like any consultant being brought on for a crisis or for projects, we were there to work to improve the image of the district.
“It’s really a sad day for education when it ... comes down simply to personal vendettas, political motivation, people who at all costs will spread rumor and innuendo to harm and damage other people.”