School board beefed up pension, pay for ex-superintendent now facing criminal charges

Alex Boyd Jr., ex-schools chief of West Harvey-Dixmoor District 147. (Handout photo)

In the face of repeated red flags, school board members hiked the pay of a south suburban superintendent and fattened his pension to among the more lucrative in the state, the Tribune has found.

The superintendent, Alex Boyd Jr., was indicted last month on felony charges that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from West Harvey-Dixmoor District 147, a financially and academically struggling school system that he ran for more than a decade.

Boyd is accused of illegally cashing out months of sick and vacation time without board approval and racking up a five-figure credit card bill. The district's elected board secretary, Mable Chapman, also was indicted on felony charges. Prosecutors say she helped Boyd's alleged theft in exchange for meals and trips on the taxpayers' dime.

The charges stem from state and county investigations sparked back in 2005 — ones that school board members responded to by backing Boyd and making him one of the higher-paid superintendents in the region, both on the job and in retirement.

In the parade of news stories about questionable Illinois pension deals, Boyd's stands out for how board members, some of them implicated in the allegations of wasteful spending, ensured him a top pension despite the district's poor performance.

Boyd was paid about $250,000 a year in his final years on the job, placing him within the top fifth of superintendents across the Chicago region. He then retired in 2011 into a $192,000-a-year pension, the fifth-highest initial pension awarded that year for any retiring public school teacher or administrator across the state. Boyd, 65, stands to lose the pension if convicted.

The pension came not only because of high pay but also because of more than $200,000 that the cash-strapped district paid extra over the years for pension bumps.

That has at least one local activist infuriated, though even she said it is an uphill battle to change a board that rarely faces a serious challenge at the ballot box.

Dixmoor resident Wendy Casey, one of the few to run against the incumbent board after warning signs were raised in 2005, said that if voters had paid more attention to board members then, "all of them would be gone, every last one of them.

"If the parents went to the meetings and held the school board accountable, all that … wouldn't have happened."

Boyd's attorney declined to comment. Chapman's attorney said his client has done nothing wrong. Boyd and Chapman have pleaded not guilty. Chapman remains in her elected position.

Board President J.C. Smith is pastor of a sizable local church and has been on the school board for more than three decades. Smith and other board members declined to talk with the Tribune directly, instead insisting that interim Superintendent Lela Bridges field questions.

Bridges, hired in June, issued a statement Monday that did not directly address Boyd's pension or pay.

The statement said officials are "implementing strong new policies and fiscal controls to ensure that we are responsible stewards of public resources."

Teachers in the district's four schools are paid less than the state average.

The students — about 1,500 from kindergarten through eighth grade — come from some of the most challenging backgrounds in the region. Nearly all of them are considered low-income, with nearly a third of households making less than $23,000 for a family of four.

Truancy rates are nearly eight times the state average, and the district has been on an academic watch list for several years.

Boyd took the reins in late 1999.

A teacher since the mid-1970s, Boyd had started his career in western Illinois and spent several years running districts in Hazel Crest, Park Forest and Madison, Wis.