May 21st, 2019 12:58 PM
By Bob Skolnik
That the newly constituted Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 Board of Education voted on May 14 to hire the law firm of Odelson Sterk to serve as its legal counsel was no surprise.
After all, the firm represented District 103 from 2015-17, when a majority backed by Lyons Village President Christopher Getty controlled the school board.
The surprise came in the form of news that Assistant Superintendent Kyle Hastings had filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court last August against the school board, claiming the board violated his contract and seeking $252,000.
The lawsuit, heretofore not revealed publicly, surfaced during a discussion of which law firm should represent the school district in the contract dispute.
Former school board President Marge Hubacek, who is a named defendant in Hastings' lawsuit, introduced an amendment to the motion hiring Odelson Sterk to allow the school district's former law firm, Robbins Schwartz, to continuing defending the district against Hastings' lawsuit.
That amendment was approved by a 6 to 1 vote of the school board, with new school board President Jorge Torres voting against it.
Hastings filed suit last year after Hubacek reduced him to just 12 days of work for the 2018-19 fiscal year.
Hastings was handed a four-year contract in 2016 when Getty-backed members controlled the school board. The contract limits Hastings, a retired school administrator, to no more than 100 days of work per year for the district. Hastings is being paid $1,066 a day this year and will get a 3.25 percent raise for the 2020-21 school year.
Board member and Torres ally Vito Campanile said he voted for Hubacek's amendment, because board secretary Charlene Latronica told the board that the lawsuit was close to being over. The next court date is June 4.
"We have to be financially responsible, and that made total sense to me from a business view," Campanile said.
In a telephone interview last week, Burt Odelson, the law firm's founding partner, told the Landmark that even if the amendment had been voted down, his firm would not have represented District 103 in the Hastings lawsuit, because Odelson Sterk firm represents Orland Hills, where Hastings is mayor
In the end, the vote to hire Odelson Sterk to represent the school district – with the exception of the Hasting case -- also was by a 6 to 1 margin, with Shannon Johnson casting the lone vote against.
Odelson Sterk also represents the village of Lyons and has contributed $17,000 to Getty's campaign committee, Citizens for Christopher Getty, over the past eight years. Odelson Sterk has also contributed $9,300 to the political committee of United Citizens Party, Getty's political party in Lyons.
This year, Odelson Sterk also contributed $4,275 this year to the campaign committee for the Getty-backed Parents for Student Excellence slate of Torres, Campanile, Olivia Quintero and Winifred Rodriguez.
Odelson, who is considered the leading election lawyer in Illinois, told the Landmark he was not personally aware of his law firm's donations to the Parents for Student Excellence. Such contributions are handled by the firm's marketing department, Odelson said, noting that his law firm makes lots of political donations.
Campanile said after the meeting that he was not aware until the meeting that Odelson Sterk had donated to the campaign committee supporting his slate's campaign.
"I don't know all the history and I'm going to get up to speed as quick as I can," Campanile said.
Torres said that he supported changing firms because the school district paid Robbins Schwartz about $100,000 more in legal fees than it paid Odelson Sterk when that firm represented District 103.
"That's $100,000 we can use for our kids," Torres said.
But Johnson, the only board member to vote against the hiring, replied that Robbins Schwartz handled more cases and issues for the district than Odelson Sterk, noting that the district had to fire a teacher this year.
Johnson said that hiring of Odelson Sterk reeked of pay-to-play politics.
"I know it's not illegal; it's just unethical and immoral," Johnson said.
Hubacek and board member Sharon Anderson said they would have preferred to keep Robbins Schwartz, but voted to hire Odelson Sterk after Hubacek's amendment passed, because they knew that Odelson Sterk was going to be hired regardless of how they voted.
Still Hubacek was not happy about it.
"I don't think they are the best law firm for us," Hubacek said. "They are a political law firm. That's what they are. Robbins Schwartz was not."
Odelson Sterk managing partner Felecia Frazier will handle District 103 for the firm and spoke to the school board during open session. Frazier handles school law for Odelson Sterk, which represents close to 20 school districts, mostly in the south suburbs.
Frazier said she does not get involved in politics.
"I know there is this perception out there about Burt Odelson and the firm, but I guarantee you that is not what's going on," Frazier said.
Anderson thinks highly of Frazier.
"I was quite impressed with you when we did work together in the past," Anderson said.
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