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A more transparent bidding process is being forced onto school board members in Proviso Township High School District 209 thanks to a state panel charged with tracking expenses.

One contract in particular has caught the eye of the financial oversight panel and Chairman Jim Popernik estimated there are huge savings to be had in health insurance costs. Also, by forcing prospective brokers for the district to declare upfront what their fee would be, said Popernik, board members and the public can more easily follow the money.

“I believe it’s got to be over a million bucks,” Popernik said of the potential savings in health insurance costs. “And that’s every year.”

The financial oversight panel was assembled by the Illinois State Board of Education in January to help the public high schools get a handle on their budget. District 209, which serves all of Proviso Township, has been deficit spending since at least 2003 and is on the state’s financial watch list. The panel meets monthly to review spending decisions, improve internal controls and help administrators develop long-term strategies for solvency.

The group met April 22 to discuss soliciting bids for insurance coverage, among other financial matters.

Popernik’s projection of more than $1 million in annual health insurance savings is based on several factors. The broker’s fee, or commission, is only a part of it, he said. Prescription drug costs can be reduced, cooperative purchasing pools should be explored and provider networks ought to be compared for the best rates. Furthermore, the district’s coverage of extremely expensive treatments can be capped by stop-loss insurance, he said.

In 2007, the school district hired Bateast Insurance Group out of Broadview as its broker. The contract was awarded without a competitive bidding process. Two board members at the time complained they didn’t know what the contract was worth, nor had they been informed of other relevant details. The district superintendent at the time said board President Chris Welch orchestrated the agreement and did not provide administrators with any details.

Following that 2007 vote, Welch said any confusion over the contract is attributable to the complicated nature of what school boards do.

“The public doesn’t understand what happens at these board meetings,” Welch said in 2007. “That’s just the nature of what we do.”

Welch attended the April 22 meeting of the oversight panel at the Proviso Math and Science Academy. Afterward, Welch said he fully supports the changes being instituted by the oversight panel. He agreed with the group’s assessment that a more competitive bidding process will likely yield savings for the district.

“There’s areas within the insurance that can be done cheaper,” Welch said.

However, Welch sidestepped questions on those practices that led to the bloated insurance costs in the first place. Focusing on the past will not move the district forward, he said, nor will it reduce the deficit.

“I can’t focus on what was done two, four, six years ago,” Welch said. “I have to focus on where we are now.”

Margerit Bateast, president of Bateast Insurance Group, did not respond to a request for comment on the new bidding process.