Tuesday, July 16, 2019 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
The Proviso Township High Schools District 209 Board of Education recently voted to bring back a residency investigations firm that had been shown the door by a previous school board seven years ago. This time, however, will be different, some current board members say.
During a June 18 special meeting, the board voted 4-1 in favor of an agreement with National Investigations, Inc., a firm based in southwest suburban Channahon, that will conduct residency investigations of D209 students suspected of living out-of-district.
Board member Della Patterson voted against the agreement while Theresa Kelly, the board’s vice-president, abstained. Member Sam Valtierrez was absent.
The firm’s bid was lower than Walden Investigative Group LLC’s. National charges $2 per family for database searches and $45 an hour for general work. Walden did not specify its charges for database searches and has a rate of $80 an hour. The agreement with National Investigations is only for the 2019-20 school year.
Although some board members expressed reservations about bringing National back into the district, there was a consensus among the board during the June meeting that professional residency investigation services are needed.
The district hasn’t had the services since 2012, when, according to a Forest Park Review report, a previous school board and the district’s Financial Oversight Panel refused to approve a $25,000 contract with National. At the time, the company had been contracting in D209 for at least a year.
Theresa Kelly, the only current board member who was on the board in 2012, said that some members, including herself, were not satisfied with National’s performance.
“They didn’t send anything to us on what they were or were not doing,” Kely said. “I don’t think they were really doing the job they were hired to do.”
Patterson echoed Kelly, explaining that, while she believes that there are students attending D209 schools, particularly Proviso East, who don’t live in the district, she didn’t agree with hiring National Investigations, Inc., either.
“Why would we bring someone back that didn’t get the job done? This is the same company,” Patterson said in a recent interview. “I was not on a board member when National Investigations was in the district, but I was that person in the community on the opposite side and I do know they were terminated, because we did not get results.”
Kelly, who said that she voted against National’s contract in 2012, explained that she abstained from voting during the June meeting because, although she was against hiring National again, she nonetheless understood the need for a residency investigations firm.
“There is most definitely a problem [with out-of-district students] coming to the district,” Kelly said. “All you have to do is go down to the CTA station in Forest Park and you’ll see kids getting on and off the trains.”
Patterson said she’s also observed students along various public transit routes in the area who appear to be commuting between Proviso East and Chicago.
State law requires school districts to accept the lowest responsive bidder, unless they have documented proof of the bidder’s lack of qualifications or history of poor performance, D209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez explained, adding that there wasn’t sufficient proof for the district to safely deny National the contract without potentially putting itself in legal jeopardy.
With only two firms having submitted bids, and with the upcoming school year just around the corner, the district didn’t have much of an alternative but to go with the lowest bidder, Kelly conceded.
Rodriguez and board member Rodney Alexander, who chairs the Parent and Community Engagement Committee — the group that came up with the idea to hire a firm to conduct residency investigations — said there are several factors that will distinguish National Investigations’ prior tenure from this upcoming time in the district.
“The issue with the company back then was that the district was paying them a flat fee whether they did anything or not,” said Alexander, who was not on the board during National Investigation’s prior tenure. “If we have a student who meets the criteria, we will pay them for that one student that one time. It’s not necessarily who you use, but it’s the management and supervision of those partners. If we’re monitoring and making sure the law is being followed, then that’s on us.”
“If they can make sure that National is earning their money and bringing us the best results, then I’m for it,” Kelly said of the 1-year agreement. “I would’ve preferred going with another company, but only two applied and school is getting ready to reconvene soon.”
Rodriguez said that the district budgeted around $35,000 for residency investigation services, but “we’re only going to use whatever we need. We might not use all of that.”
Rodriguez added that D209 administrators are typically able to handle most residency concerns by following a range of procedures that they have at hand, such as correcting address information that’s on file. He said that National Investigations’ services will only be needed if administrators cannot verify a student’s residency — an occurrence he suspects could be rare.
In that case, National Investigations may conduct in-person investigations, database searches and surveillance at various public transportation locations, in order to determine a student’s actual residence.
Alexander said that hiring National Investigations is part of a more comprehensive attempt to “make sure that we, as a board, are crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s, as it relates to financial responsibility, being accountable to taxpayer dollars, and making sure our students are attending school safely and with other students who are supposed to be there. The district has a history of students coming from other places, primarily from the West Side of Chicago.”
Currently, the district doesn’t maintain statistics on the number of students who may be suspected of living out-of-district. Retrieving the data is a tall order, and ensuring that it’s sufficiently protected and used lawfully is even more complicated, Alexander said.
“It’s a lot deeper than people think,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of knocking on kids’ doors.”
District officials explained that, despite the recent hiring of National Investigations, they’re still cognizant of the need to protect the sensitive personal information of students from immigrant families. Rodriguez said that the legally binding contract the district has with National Investigations states that information cannot be shared with a third party.
“The information will be protected and it will only be between the district and the company,” he said, adding that the district’s ultimate goal “is to provide educational services to all Proviso Township residents and to protect the assets of the Board of Education while ensuring the best interests of the taxpayer.”
On July 15, in response to the federal government launching targeted deportation raids last week, the district released a resolution reaffirming its status as a welcoming and safe district, and vowed to provide “resources to principals, students and families” on how to navigate the threat of deportation.
“We do understand that in order for students to learn, they have to feel safe,” D209 board President Ned Wagner said in the statement. VFP
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