Niles Township High School trustees Monday signed off on a settlement that will pay $50,000 to a former Niles West dean who was fired in 1999 for sending sexually predatory e-mail to female students.
The settlement, said Board President Robert Silverman, characterizes Gary Solomon ‘s departure from the district as a resignation rather than a firing. Monday’s 5-2 board vote ends a two-year case that was scheduled to begin again this month before a state hearing officer. A previous hearing officer resigned from the case last year, voiding proceedings that already had begun.
Throughout the case, several District 219 trustees said they would never agree to a settlement with Solomon that provided a pay out. But some of them changed their minds because they said the settlement was the best remaining option for the district.
“I’m very glad this will be over with,” said Silverman, who voted against the settlement. “I think the settlement does two important things. It makes sure that this individual will never work in the district again and it minimizes the cost to the community. This is far below what it would cost to continue the case.”
But Silverman said he could not accept the settlement on “moral grounds.”
Superintendent Griff Powell favored trying to dispose of the case earlier, even if it meant paying Solomon money. The board at that time refused.
“I know we could take a hit from the newspapers and the community for this settlement based on past agreements to buy out administrators,” said Trustee Leon Finkel before Monday’s vote. “But that has nothing to do with what we’re doing now. This is best for the district.”
When District 219 fired Solomon two years ago, Solomon appealed the firing during a state administrative hearing. District 219 officials insisted that the hearing be held in public, against Solomon ‘s wishes.
District 219 lawyer Anthony Scariano said Solomon ‘s actions were “immoral, insubordinate, unprofessional and unethical.”
Scariano presented six allegations against Solomon to justify why he was fired by the School Board:
- He exchanged e-mail with former and current students.
- He attended a Cubs game with female students on a school day during school hours.
- Materials in his office and on his school computer revealed he had “several unprofessional relationships with female students, while they were students, including, on at least one occasion, kissing a female student.”
- He possessed photographs indicating he knew of students using illegal drugs and alcohol, but did not report that to the proper authorities.
- He used his school computer “for matters other than the education of students,” including permitting students to use his e-mail account, putting offensive material in his personal journal and submitting such material over the internet.
- He refused to answer questions regarding the district’s investigation of these charges and refused to submit to a medical examination despite the order of his employer.
Solomon ‘s lawyer, George Grumley, argued the district should not have used Solomon ‘s personal journal as justification to fire him. The journal was kept on a school-owned computer. He also said district officials had refered Solomon in the past to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and to the Skokie Police, which found no wrongdoing.
Hearing officer Lee Forman urged the two sides to reach a settlement in fall of 1999 and then the hearings were abruptly halted. In June 2000, Forman resigned from the case over confusion as to whether the sides had settled.
Although Forman said an agreement had been reached, both Solomon and District 219 officials said no settlement had been reached nor was close to being reached.
District 219 Trustees Monday said their main goal in reaching a settlement with Solomon was to make sure he never again worked in the district. If the district lost the case, they said, Solomon could return to the district with back pay.
Powell estimated the district has spent about $200,000 on the Solomon case so far, with several bills still outstanding. The estimated cost to continue the Solomon case would far exceed the $50,000 pay out, he said.
“All of us reviewed the evidence and we’re thoroughly concerned that this person had an inappropriate relationship with female students,” said Trustee Howard Dane, who voted against the settlement. “We all share the opinion that this individual should not be allowed back into the district.”
But several factors convinced the majority of trustees to approve a settlement with a pay out, after earlier saying they would never do so: district costs, the refusal of key witnesses to cooperate and the prospect of Solomon ‘s return if the district lost.
“If you look at the the national average cost to remove a tenured teacher, this is the most prudent decision we could make,” said Trustee Sam Borek.
“He would be entitled to his job and every penny of back pay” if the district lost, Trustee Gail Stone Stone said. “This was an eye opener for all of us. I hope there’s some better way to do all of this in the future.”
Most of the female students involved did not want to testify against Solomon , officials said. Although District 219 could have forced them to testify, district officials said they were reluctant to do so.
The recent sexual assault trial of Green Bay Packers football player Mark Chmura “was not pleasant for the 16-year-old on the witness stand,” Borek said.
District 219 trustees did not agree to any gag order limiting what they can say about the settlement. But administrators are restricted on what they can say, if a prospective employer asks for a reference about Solomon .
The district’s practice is not to offer a positive or negative recommendation about a former employee, Silverman said.
Asked whether the district is concerned about Solomon working with female students elsewhere, Silverman said he believes the word is out about the former dean.
“Our primary responsibility is to take care of our district,” Silverman said. “But his name is all over the place. We could have kept the hearings private. We didn’t. Each district has the responsibility to find out about the employees it hires.”
District 219 did not release the text of the settlement following Monday night’s meeting. Officials required Pioneer Press to file a Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy of the settlement. That request is pending and the settlement was not available before press time.
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