Board spending goes unchecked in Proviso

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By JOSH ADAMS

Six months ago three board members from District 209 attended a conference of the National School Board Association held in downtown Chicago. Though all three board members live just 15 miles away, each used taxpayer money for overnight stays in hotel rooms that cost more than $200 a night.

According to Proviso Township High School records, some 60 district employees and board members racked up cell phone bills totaling more than $10,400 in the last two months alone. All of those charges were billed to taxpayers.

A bevy of improper and unchecked spending has plagued the public high school district for years, according to administrators and board members alike, but infighting at the board level has brought about few changes. Interviews with five of the seven board members revealed a range of viewpoints as to which expenses should be eliminated altogether and how to control those that are permitted.

The financial documents used in this story were obtained by the Review through a Freedom of Information Act filing.

Daniel Adams is one of the three board members who billed the district for a downtown hotel room in April. His two-night stay at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue cost the district $485, plus another $150 in food costs and $100 in gas money. Adams's home in Melrose Park is roughly 13.5 miles from the Hilton, but he justified the expense as being a matter of convenience.

"If I'm at home I might not have made it to the conference," Adams said.

With traffic, the commute from his home would have likely deterred him from attending the conference, Adams said.

"It just made it actually easier for me," Adams said.

Adams, the vice president for the district's board of education, said it never occurred to him that taxpayers might take issue with footing the bill for his hotel room but said he is a staunch supporter of bringing all the board's travel expenses to public meetings for approval.

Superintendent Stan Fields said it is actually the board's policy that such expenses be approved by the board, but it isn't occurring. Travel records for the entire district dating back to the beginning of the 2005-06 school year were obtained by the Forest Park Review. None of these records indicate the board reviewed the requests and only the interim administrator's signature was necessary.

Board member Theresa Kelly is regarded by several district officials to be one of the biggest offenders when it comes to traveling on the district's dime. She billed the district $723 for three nights in a hotel on Dearborn Avenue last April. In addition, there were registration, food and travel expenses for hundreds of dollars.

As a retiree, Kelly said she has more time to travel than other board members who are working might. But, she said, the conferences are worthwhile because she has identified grants, curriculum and after school programs that have benefited students. Kelly claims that some $7.5 million in grants were accessed by the district because of her attendance at various conferences.

"My grants, I feel take care of everything," Kelly said. "I'm there working."

District 209 Business Manager Nikita Johnson said she was not readily familiar with the funds Kelly referred too, but said any grant-funding is typically earned through an application process undertaken by district staff.

As for the hotel room on Dearborn Avenue, Kelly said it's unsafe for her to use public transportation in downtown Chicago at night.

"I can't be coming home at night from downtown," Kelly said. "I'm a senior citizen. I'm not going to get hit in the head."

Board member Charles Flowers also attended that conference in downtown Chicago and though he told the Review he stayed in a downtown hotel, the district has no record of that expense. Proviso spokesperson Angela McDaniel said that debt is "unreconciled."

The same status has been applied to a flight in November 2005 that brought Kelly to Detroit for a five-night stay in that city. Receipts verify she received $100 for transportation to and from the airport, but the airfare is not accounted for, according to McDaniel.

Gary Marine is one of three board members who has not traveled at the district's expense in the last year, nor does he rely on the district for a cell phone. Marine said his home number is publicly listed and the district has his personal cell phone number.

"I would never travel on the taxpayer's dime," Marine said. "I volunteered to help steer the school in the right direction."

However, Marine said he can't fault other board members for such expenses and he does find value in having at least one member attend various conferences. The significance of a phone bill or a hotel bill within the district's $60 million budget is minute, Marine said and it's unlikely the general public is interested.

"I can't really say that taxpayers will be up in arms if somebody's phone bill is up over $150," Marine said.

Board President Chris Welch and Flowers both have used cellular phones paid for by the district.

Welch returned his phone to the district roughly a month ago, and said the only reason he carried one since joining the board in 1999 is that a former superintendent recommended it. According to the August and September cell phone bills for the district, Welch's most recent wireless plan cost the district a minimum of $166.98 per month.

"Before I gave it back it was largely sitting at my house for seven or eight months serving as a voicemail box," Welch said.

The minimum monthly bill for Flowers, who still has his district-issued phone, is $201.97. In both August and September, Flowers' cell phone cost the district approximately $260.

Kelly is the only other board member with a cell phone. The district paid less than $30 in each of the last two months for her cellular coverage.

Marine isn't alone in his sentiment that the board has more pressing financial issues than travel and cell phones. Both Kelly and Flowers agreed that hiring practices in recent years have led to bloated salaries, unnecessary outsourcing and overlapping responsibilities. Some of that money too, Flowers said, should have been brought to the board but never was.

"We have millions of dollars floating out the window without approval," Flowers said.

In particular, Kelly questioned whether the number of administrators on staff is really necessary.

"There's too much fat at the top," Kelly said. "Why do we have two assistant principals at both schools? That's not needed. That's where the fat is coming in."

To reign in superficial spending, both Welch and Adams recommended that individual board members be limited to taking one or two trips each year. Several board members verified that at no point in their tenure has a board member returned from a national conference and made any sort of presentation to the full board.

Fields, the district superintendent, said he will defer to the board on setting restrictions, but wants whatever measures that are in place adhered to.

Within his own office, however, Fields said he has already cancelled two credit card accounts issued to assistant superintendents Phylistine Murphy and Robert Libka. Between the months of February and August, the two administrators charged at least $4,000 in restaurant bills to the district, according to records turned over by Proviso. Receipts for the month of April within that time span were not provided by the district.

For the months provided, Libka and Murphy charged more than $6,770 to district credit cards, including some $660 for Kelly to attend a conference next month in Orlando, Fla.

"What I'm looking for is a shift in attitude and a change in the climate where?our staff is following school code," Fields said.

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