The chairman of an oversight panel charged with steering District 209 into calmer financial waters is asking to wade through the district’s list of consultants and outside contractors, and could demand changes that ripple beyond the ledger.
“My understanding is we can trump anything the board does, financially,” Jim Popernik, chairman of the state-appointed Financial Oversight Panel, said. “We’re the final say, is my understanding.”
During a Feb. 25 meeting of the panel, which was assembled by the Illinois State Board of Education, members made clear that at least one contract appeared bloated. That deal belongs to an insurance broker hired in June 2007, Bateast Insurance Group, which was never forced to bid its services against other competitors.
“We think you could save some money here and put it back into educational programs, and that’s a good deal because your not effecting staffing or anything,” a member of the oversight panel said during the meeting.
When that no-bid contract was approved, the district’s superintendent at the time had recommended against using a broker at all, and claimed he had no details on what the contract was worth. The hiring was orchestrated by school board President Chris Welch, the former superintendent said.
Prior to working with Bateast, Proviso Township High School District 209 paid monthly commissions to a brokerage owned by Cook County Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore. That relationship began in 2005, and by 2007 saw $18,000 a month paid to Moore’s company. Moore is a longtime political ally of Welch, and two employees from his office, Sue Henry and Brian Cross, are also members of the school board.
Welch, Henry and Cross are facing re-election in April.
The Feb. 25 meeting was only the third for the Financial Oversight Panel, and Popernik said the group is trying to work swiftly. The immediate priority is to help the district organize its budget for the next several years so that further intervention from the state is not necessary.
District 209 is currently on the state’s financial watch list. In December, the school board voted to solicit the help of an oversight panel as it wrestles with massive deficits.
In 2008, the board voted to issue $18 million in bonds for the purpose of meeting routine expenses, such as payroll. An estimated $3 million of that bond amount was to be transferred from an existing account.
According to Deb Vespa, a financial administrator for the state, only a handful of school districts in Illinois have seen their budgets scrutinized by an oversight panel. The goal is to work with administrators, but the panel can force a school to hire new financial officers, she said.
“Really, it is atypical,” Vespa said of convening an oversight panel. “It’s a last resort for a school district. There’s a whole process before a district can be put under a financial oversight panel.”
Popernik has also requested that a detailed accounting of the district’s legal bills from 2008 and 2009 be made available to the panel. Just prior to the February meeting, Popernik said the panel’s scrutiny of those bills will also determine whether the district should be paying attorney’s fees on behalf of Welch, who is being sued in his individual capacity. No timeline for that opinion was offered.