After a contentious public comment session, May 22, the Proviso Township High School District 209 Financial Oversight Panel started their meeting at Proviso Math and Science Academy to approve expenses set by the high school district.

The panel pointed a spotlight on an $11,694 retirement party. They also questioned $3,500 monthly bills from two district hearing officers.

The bill for the retirement banquet, held on May 4, was paid to Doubletree, a chain of hotels and banquet facilities.

Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart told the panelists that the banquet honored retirees and special faculty and staff members. She said attendees were allowed to bring one guest. She estimated that the number of people at the banquet was 200.

According to the district’s website, 16 faculty and staff members retired from D209 this year. Forty-seven other faculty members were honored at the banquet. If each honoree brought a guest, the count would have been 126, costing the district $93 each for the banquet.

“In most districts, that would be paid for by the attendees,” said finance panelist Marilee McCracken.

“I have no problems in paying for retirement meals if they’ve been here a long time,” said panelist Dr. Craig Shilling. “But gifts should be paid for by staff.”

“You should take a look at this in the future,” said Shilling, “when you’re looking for money for education purposes for kids.”

Hearing officer expense questioned

The finance panel also questioned the district’s payment of $3,500 per month to hearing officer Brian Carey.

“Based on his invoice, he’s charging us about $700 an hour,” said McCracken. “I think that’s an exorbitant amount of money, and I’m just wondering when we’ll stop paying $700 an hour for that service?”

D209 employs two hearing officers, Carey and Michael Castaldo for $3,500 per month ($42,000 per year). Carey, an attorney in Melrose Park, says his duties for the district are to administer disciplinary hearings for students.

“They call me when a fight breaks out or something happens, like someone brings a knife to school,” said Carey, who says he helps determine suspensions and expulsions. “Sometimes I’ll have six to 10 hearings after a single fight.”

Carey says he worked 72 hours in the first quarter of the year, averaging less than $150 an hour. That’s reasonable for a lawyer with 35 years of trial lawyer experience, he said.

The U.S. Department of Labor salary statistics show that hearing officers earn between $50,000 and $72,000 yearly on average.

“Over Christmas break I had almost 100 hearings,” Carey said.

Sometimes students or their families sue him for the expulsions or suspensions, and then he must defend the case in court outside of school, Carey said.

Usually the second half of the school year is quieter, in his experience, until May when he says the fights start back up.

“There are six sheriff’s police and security officers on each floor of the schools,” said Carey.

He says sometimes his job is made difficult when student witnesses won’t “snitch.” That causes hearings to last longer.

Asked why he is paid monthly, Carey said the agreement was in place when he started a couple of years ago.

“The advantage with flat billing [for D209] is that they have a fixed expense,” Carey said.

Transport question elicits response

The meeting got heated when Shilling asked Superintendent Collins-Hart for attendance data to show that the district’s transportation program was getting students to school on time.

School board President Emanuel “Chris” Welch emotionally interrupted the meeting, pointing out that the transportation program also addressed safety issues.

“Those buses are getting kids to school safely,” he said. “Students are getting killed.”

Cutting back transportation is one of the things Welch has accused the financial oversight panel of planning to do. When he was asked not to interrupt the meeting, Welch said, “This is my board, too.”

Transportation is a thorny problem for Illinois school districts, said finance panelist James Popernik in a separate interview.

“The school district is not required to provide transportation, and the state has drastically cut its reimbursements for transportation. And the timing of the state reimbursement causes cash flow problems,” he said.

The state of Illinois cut its transportation budget for non-special education students by $138.5 million or almost 40 percent last year, according to Illinois State Board of Education budget documents.

D209 chose a bad time to start its busing program, which is provided by Laidlaw school transportation, said Popernik.

“They instituted transportation at the time when that was starting to be cut,” Popernik said. “The state’s financial woes are compounding the problem with delayed reimbursements.”

The financial oversight panel also approved raising the summer driver education fees by $25, to $175. This had been an issue of concern at an earlier school board meeting, when Welch told his board members that the oversight panel sought to charge so much for driver education that students would forego their driver’s licenses.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...