Austin nonprofit pulls Oak Park funding request

Trustee calls Friends of the Children's request improper due to village manager's seat on board

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

A nonprofit organization that works with at-risk youth in the Chicago neighborhoods of Austin and North Lawndale has withdrawn its request for $15,000 from the village of Oak Park.

The decision by Friends of the Children to pull the request comes after the item was removed from the consent agenda of the Oak Park Board of Trustees meeting on Dec. 10 and placed on the regular agenda by trustees Simone Boutet and Dan Moroney.

Boutet said in a telephone interview that she believes it is improper to provide funds to the nonprofit because Village Manager Cara Pavlicek serves on the board of the organization.

"I think it's an improper use of public funds to fund your private interest with public funds," she said.

The item originally appeared on the consent agenda, meaning that it would have been approved by trustees with a number of other consent-agenda items and without discussion.

The funding was first included a year ago in the 2018 budget but was removed by trustees.

Pavlicek said in a telephone interview that the $15,000 request "falls below the manager's spending authority," meaning the funds could have been committed to the organization without board approval, but she brought it to the board for consideration.

She believes the request is appropriate because the new organization is working in Austin.

Taal Hasak-Lowy, executive director of Friends of the Children, said the request was pulled, in part, over concern that the request would anger Oak Park taxpayers. She and Friends of the Children Board Chairman Tom Abrahamson decided to pull it from the regular agenda.

"I think Tom's general feeling was [that] a lot is happening in Oak Park, so let's pull this out if this is an issue at all," she said.

Some on social media argued that the request constitutes a conflict of interest because of Pavlicek's position on the board.

Oak Parker Kitty Conklin, who regularly attends board meetings and has been an advocate for lowering property taxes in Oak Park, argued at the Dec. 10 meeting that Friends of the Children is not Oak Park-based and does not serve local students.

"Therefore, to me, there is a very obvious conflict of interest with the funding request," she told trustees on Dec. 10.

Hasak-Lowy said several Oak Park residents are involved with Friends of the Children, and the Austin neighborhood of Chicago "is of special interest to Oak Park."

The nonprofit works to pair caseworkers with at-risk students in economically depressed parts of the city. The mentors follow the students for the entirety of their education to help them achieve their educational goals, she said.

Friends of the Children has been active for 25 years but just launched a Chicago chapter in 2018.

They started in January with 24 first graders — 16 of which attend Ella Flagg Young Elementary School, 1434 N. Parkside Ave., and the remainder from schools in North Lawndale, Hasak-Lowy said.

Boutet told Wednesday Journal she believes it is "a wonderful charity" but added that it is "not within the realm of the village."

She added that she thinks Pavlicek "deep-sixed" the funding request.

"I'm glad it got removed, but I still think [Pavlicek] should be held accountable," she said. "If this was a board that was more accountable and where there was more accountability, there would have been a discussion right away."

Trustee Deno Andrews said in a telephone interview that he agrees the village should not fund a program that does not serve Oak Park children but had no ill will toward Pavlicek or the organization for making the request.

"I don't love how it was presented, but I don't hold it against the village manager for asking because I believe she believes it would be a benefit to the village," he said.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com    

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