The executive assistant to the former schools superintendent in suburban Bellwood has sued the community’s school district for firing her, claiming local politics lay at the center of the school board’s decision to fire her shortly after terminating her boss.
Jeninne M. Hixson was executive assistant to the superintendent of Bellwood School District 88 from September 2011 until early October 2014, when she was suspended without pay and quickly fired. According to her lawsuit, the termination was connected to her support of the Bellwood First political organization run by the Bellwood mayor, who frequently clashed with the school board.
In her wrongful termination suit filed June 26 in federal court in Chicago, Hixson names as defendants the school district, the school board and four individual board members. The tensions swirled around school board elections earlier this year, in which Hixson personally supported then-Bellwood schools superintendent and village board member Phylistine Murphy, Bellwood Mayor Frank Pasquale and the Bellwood First Party in opposition to Daisy Allen, president of the district’s school board, and board secretary Janice Johnson Starks, both listed as defendants.
Hixson, now of Westchester, said she lived in Bellwood for 24 years. She became a substitute teacher for District 88 in 2009, and in 2011 was hired as a full-time executive assistant. Murphy, the district’s chief operating officer at the time, as well as a Bellwood trustee, hired Hixson, and a few months later became acting superintendent. Hixson reported to Murphy throughout her full-time District 88 employment.
“An endorsement of a village or school board candidate by Bellwood Mayor Pasquale virtually ensures that candidate’s election,” Hixson’s claim states, noting she and Murphy had “publically supported the Bellwood First political organization and the candidacy of Mayor Pasquale and other Bellwood First candidates.”
Murphy, Hixson and Hixson’s parents volunteered for Bellwood First. Hixson and Murphy attended several of the same fundraisers as Michael Castaldo, the legal counsel on retainer with both the village and District 88.
Allen, Starks and the other named defendants, Marilyn Thurman and Dorothy Smith, formed a powerful voting bloc, according to Hixson. Allen and Starks were up for re-election earlier in 2015, roughly a year after the district approved a deficit reduction plan. As part of that plan, which Murphy crafted, one of the district’s only two executive assistant positions would be eliminated — the one held by the other executive assistant.
In either late September or early October, Pasquale, through Castaldo, said he was not prepared to support Allen and Starks in their bid for re-election. Shortly thereafter, the school board voted to terminate Murphy. Castaldo resigned from his position as the district’s legal counsel.
On Oct. 6, after a school board meeting, Thurman told Hixson to take Oct. 7 off of work because the board “did not know what they were going to do with her.”
When Hixson showed up for work Oct. 8, Interim Superintendent Rosemary Hendricks placed Hixson on paid suspension, and on Oct. 10, the board met in special session and terminated Hixson’s employment.
There were no investigations or pre-disciplinary meetings, Hixson said, and she claims “a spotless work record, with excellent performance reviews and free from any disciplinary action.”
Hixson is represented by Richard F. Blass & Associates, of Elmhurst. She is requesting a jury trial. She wants to be reinstated to her position, with restoration of attendant seniority and benefits, compensatory damages in the form of lost wages, legal fees and any other relief deemed fair. She also requests punitive damages against each individual defendant as a means of punishment and deterrence from future actions.