Alden-Hebron School District 19 under contract for land owned by board president's father-in-law

HEBRON – The landowner intending to sell nearly 80 acres to Alden-Hebron School District 19 for potential future development has family ties to the school board, the Northwest Herald has learned.

The district plans to buy 79.642 acres of land at Price and Kemmen roads for just less than $756,600 from Daniel Walters of Hebron, according to the land purchase contract obtained by the newspaper through the Freedom of Information Act.

In addition to being a longtime farmer of corn and soybeans, Daniel Walters also is the father-in-law to school board President Susan Walters, which she later confirmed by email.

Pending a six-month period of due diligence, the contract was approved with a 6-0 vote during the Jan. 5 board meeting. Susan Walters was absent and later said she was out of town for the meeting.

“I have never been involved with the property the school district is buying,” she wrote, adding she did not have conversations with her father-in-law about the land, but let communication stay between him and Superintendent Debbie Ehlenburg.

Susan Walters’ name and an email address for her appears on the contact page of a website for Walters Farms, but when asked about that, she said it was not an indicator that she has any interest in the parcel the district is buying.

Brian Gaines, a professor of political science who specializes in public opinion at University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said it appears to be a situation where transparency should play a key role.

“I think there are always red flags anytime there’s a family member involved,” Gaines said. “You can’t help but wonder if it’s on the up and up.”

At the same time, he added if it’s handled properly and honestly, a family connection doesn’t necessarily mean a conflict of interest.

Daniel Walters works regularly with his son and Susan’s husband, Phil Walters, on Walters Farms, 6201 Johnson Road, but she said the two operations are separate.

“Financially separate means that we have our land that we run, pay our own bills, and have our own operating loan with the bank. We file our taxes as husband and wife,” she wrote. “My father-in-law has the same setup, but he files his taxes in his name.”

Daniel Walters, who’s selling the property to the district for about $200 per acre more than what he bought it for about three years ago, added that both he and his son keep track of where crops come from in order to maintain two separate revenue streams.

“It’s not like I’m making a fortune on this,” Daniel Walters said, adding that he was a District 19 school board member years ago. “I thought I was helping out the school district.”

The district has been in search of land for several years in order to eventually address an aging middle and high school building, which sits down the street from the property under contract.

Ehlenburg said in an email the deal brokered between the district and Daniel Walters garnered a lower price than any of the 10 to 12 properties considered in the past.

She and the members of the school board were aware of the relationship from the beginning, they said. Ehlenburg contacted the district’s attorney, Scott Nemanich of Hinshaw and Culbertson LLP, who told her there was no conflict.

“You ask the people, then the title report shows up – that shows who the owners are – and the title report doesn’t have [Susan Walters] on it,” Nemanich said. “Those two things alone end it.”

School board member Andy Madsen said the relationship didn’t faze him. In fact, he said the offer was a welcome development in their land search because Daniel Walters was the first to offer the district a good deal.

“Yes, we knew that he’s her father-in-law, but we didn’t push it,” Madsen said. “When you live in a small town, someone’s always going to be related to someone. It’s hard to find somebody not related to anyone.”

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