School District 163 Attorney Sends Bizarre Letter to eNews Park Forest

Joyce Carmine, Caletha White, School District 163,
The two superintendents of School District 163: Interim Superintendent Dr. Joyce Carmine, left, and Superintendent Designate Dr. Caletha White. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- The administration at Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163 was evidently not happy with a report published by eNews Park Forest on November 21 (SD 163: Home of the Richest Superintendent in Illinois). The displeasure of the district was apparently so acute that, nearly a month later, an attorney affiliated with the district penned a bizarre letter to this publication.

In the letter, Justino D. Petrarca (an Equity Partner with Scariano, Himes & Petrarca, Attorneys at Law) nowhere discloses his relationship to School District 163. Printed on letterhead from Mr. Petrarca’s law firm, Mr. Petrarca says he is ostensibly writing a “response on behalf of the Board of Education as containing some suggestions to improve your craft,” journalism.

The bottom of the letter indicates that copies were sent to Mr. Lance Jefferson, Board President, and Dr. Joyce Carmine, Interim Superintendent.

The letter amounts to nothing more than an attempt at intimidation and addresses no legal matters. Instead, the attorney functions as a high-priced public relations agent.

And it’s bad public relations, if public relations, at the very least, means putting nothing in the media that could potentially embarrass School District 163.

The entire text of the letter follows, along with responses from eNews Park Forest. Emphasis, at points, is added.

December 17, 2018

Dear Mr. Kopycinski:

It has come to my attention that you recently wrote several articles in which you report incorrect information regarding Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163. Having reviewed the articles, I am certain that you want to be viewed as a serious journalist, while setting examples regarding fairness and accuracy for the students you teach. Therefore, I am providing this response on behalf of the Board of Education as containing some suggestions to improve your craft.

I first have to wonder how much the composition of this letter cost School District 163. If Mr. Petrarca is reading this, please consider this notice of a forthcoming formal FOIA regarding that amount. Also, I must wonder why the Board President Lance Jefferson did not respond, and why did neither Superintendent for the School District respond?

First, you reported that Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163 has two Superintendents. That is simply not true. Dr. Carmine is the Interim Superintendent; Dr. White is the Superintendent-Designate.

On the district’s website, there is a Superintendent’s Message. While the singular possessive apostrophe is employed, the message is signed by two people, each sharing the title “Superintendent.” You can split hairs and your can split follicles. Either way this odd arrangement is split, we still have two people sharing the title “Superintendent” sitting side-by-side at meetings of the Board of Education.

Superintendent's Message, Park Forest-Chicago Height School District 163', two superintendents
Screenshot from the signature section of Park Forest-Chicago Height School District 163’s “Superintendent’s Message.”

Also, please note the use of the word “Superintendent” in both of the titles above (emphasis added). The District is using the word “Superintendent” for both, and, while the attorney uses a hyphen in Dr. White’s title (“Superintendent-Designate”) the District uses no such hyphen in the Superintendent’s Message.

Screenshot of the Superintendent’s Message, taken and added to this story Dec. 30, 2018 at 9:37 PM:

https://enewspf.com/office-of-the-superintendent-_-superintendent-www_sd163_com_domain_70/

Again, the District is going out of its way to tell us there are, in fact, two Superintendents.

The primary reason behind this administrative structure is to allow the Superintendent-Designate to confidently transition into her role of Superintendent at the start of the 2019/2020 school year.

Was the district unable to find someone who could step into that role with confidence? Is School District 163 radically more complicated than any other school district in the state of Illinois that it requires two top administrators?

Given the fact that the Interim Superintendent has served the School District for nearly two decades, she possesses priceless institutional knowledge to aid the Superintendent-Designate to succeed in that transition.

There is a price put on that knowledge, however. As Fox 32 News reported “between her pension and new/old job, Carmine will take home $419,235.” That includes her “part time” position of Interim Superintendent where she takes home $1,200 per day and works only 100 days.

That’s not “priceless” to an over-taxed district.

Moreover, the Interim Superintendent’s retirement in the summer of 2017 came at a time when the School District was undergoing various construction projects, changing its curriculum and administration structure, and beginning negotiations for a successor collective bargaining agreement for teachers and support staff. Therefore, the Board of Education felt it was best to keep Dr. Carmine on staff as the Interim Superintendent in order to assure that those major projects were sufficiently concluded.

Construction projects, curriculum and administrative structural changes, negotiations for a “successor collective bargaining agreement for teachers and support staff”: This all sounds like the business of running a school district. Construction projects are hardly extraordinary. Changing curriculum and administration structure? That happens every year — or it should. Such reviews in education are constant. A collective bargaining agreement for teachers and support staff?

Dane Placko, Fox 32 Chicago, School District 163
Fox 32 Chicago investigative reporter Dane Placko at the November 19, 2018 meeting of School District 163’s Board of Education. Attorney Justino Petrarca is in the background. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Back to the attorney’s letter:

Second, you reported that the Village of Park Forest is lowering its tax levy, while the School District is increasing its tax levy. This is also incorrect. Although the School District’s levy has increased, the Board of Education will be applying to the Illinois State Board of Education for a tax relief grant that will actually abate taxes due to the School District. The application will be sent to the State Board of Education in January, 2019, and we are expecting the application to be approved in March, 2019. We are confident the application will be approved based on the School District’s place in the priority list for this grant.

It is a fact that the Village of Park Forest lowered its tax levy for the first time in 26 years. The attorney for School District 163 lacks understanding that establishing a tax levy and applying for and waiting for a grant to come through are two completely different things. The district set the levy. If a grant comes through (When, March of 2019?), that is a separate matter. The levy has been set, or, as the attorney says, “the School District’s levy has increased.”

The reporting for this publication was sound and true. Let’s see what, if anything, happens in March of 2019. If the grant comes through, we’ll report that too. Until then, “the School District’s levy has increased,” to quote the attorney’s letter.

Third, in the second paragraph of your November 21, 2018 article, you misspelled the Interim Superintendent’s last name. Proofreading is a pillar of good writing style and will lead to your ability to be taken seriously.

Thank you for this! I will forever cherish the day Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163 Board of Education paid an attorney to point out a typo on my site.

Lastly, and what is most troubling about your recent articles, is that you never sought to interview or seek information from anyone at the School District before writing them. Yet another cornerstone of good journalism is attempting to glean information from the subject of your story. Provided that you adhere to the Board of Education’s policies and procedures regarding media relations, I would be happy to do whatever is possible to assist you to publishing accurate information. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.

Who I interview for a piece is entirely up to me. The “Board of Education’s policies and procedures regarding media relations” do not apply to me, eNews Park Forest, or any other media outlet covering this district. They might apply to school staff, but there are no such policies on the district’s website, and, if there were, they would be meaningless to me, eNews Park Forest, or any other media outlet covering this district. This line, as the letter itself, appears to be an attempt at specious intimidation.

It appears our coverage of Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163 was too accurate for the comfort of the Board of Education and the attorney.

Finally, regarding the jabs at journalism, and Mr. Petrarca attempting to share his thoughts about journalism, I shared his letter with members of LION Publishers: Local Independent Online News Publishers, an organization to which I am proud to belong.

They were less than impressed with Mr. Petrarca’s letter, dismissing the attorney’s letter as foolish.

“I’m sorry but I laughed out loud when I read the attorney’s letter,” said one publisher. “It’s the most contradictory thing I’ve read this year. We have two superintendents but we don’t have two superintendents. Taxes were increased but they were not increased. The district needs a new lawyer.”

From another publisher, “The letter essentially confirms everything you reported. Two people have ‘superintendent’ in their title, so, yeah, they have two superintendents. And the lecture about being taken seriously for accuracy from a person attempting to veil the truth is rather rich.”

And this, from another publisher, “Relish the day the district paid a lawyer to point out a typo on your site.”

Very truly yours,

SCARIANO, H1MES AND PETRARCA, CHTD

JUSTINO D. PETRARCA

Indeed.

I respectfully suggest Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163 procure a new lawyer.

https://enewspf.com/petrarca-letter-enewspf-12-17-18/