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Fired after harassment complaint, Bellwood school official got rehired after campaign work

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Updated: January 27, 2013 6:12AM

An administrator for a west suburban elementary school district who was fired after being accused of sexual harassment was rehired after campaigning for three new members of his school board, records show.

Joe Burdi was making more than $100,000 a year as the head of buildings, grounds and transportation for Bellwood School District 88 when he was fired in December 2010 following a sexual harassment complaint that marked the second time in three years that a female employee accused Burdi of inappropriate comments and unwanted sexual advances, according to interviews and public records.

Weeks before his firing — while the allegation was being investigated by the district — Burdi hit the streets to gather signatures from registered voters so three District 88 candidates, all non-incumbents, could appear on the ballot for the April 2011 election, records show.

All three candidates were elected.

In January 2012, with “yes” votes from board President Maria Castrejon and the three new members, the District 88 school board voted 4-3 to hire Burdi for an $80,000-a-year post and award him a $40,000 settlement to withdraw a federal civil rights lawsuit he had filed to get his job back.

Like Burdi, Castrejon is a member of the Neighbors Active Party of Stone Park. She also is the elected village clerk in the west suburb, whose elementary-age students attend the Bellwood district’s schools.

Records show Burdi had circulated nominating petitions for her school board race in 2009.

Burdi said his being rehired wasn’t tied to his campaign work. He said he did campaign work for the three new members because “I believe that they had the best interests of the kids at heart.”

He said the sexual harassment allegations were used to fire him for political reasons.

First-term school board member Janice Johnson-Starks, one of the beneficiaries of Burdi’s door-knocking campaign work, said she didn’t know Burdi when she was running for office and found out about his support after the election.

As for her vote to rehire Burdi and pay him a settlement over his lawsuit, Johnson-Starks said there was no conclusive evidence Burdi did anything wrong.

“I’ve seen it before,” she said. “I’ve worked in [the federal] government for 21 years, and I know that people slander people when they can’t get what they want.”

Joe Madrid, a former Stone Park village trustee who served on the suburb’s village board with Burdi at one time, said he asked Burdi to circulate nominating petitions to get on the school board ballot and that Burdi didn’t ask for anything in return. Madrid said they didn’t talk about the harassment allegations or lawsuit.

The third new school board member, Daisy Allen, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Burdi did not circulate petitions for any of the seven school board candidates who unsuccessfully ran against Allen, Madrid and Johnson-Starks in 2011, campaign records show. The three sitting members who voted against rehiring Burdi weren’t up for re-election in 2011. They, along with Castrejon, last ran in 2009 — when records show Burdi donated $1,000 to a campaign committee benefitting them. Castrejon and her three then-allies later had a falling out, she said.

Alden Loury works for the Better Government Association.

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