Forest Park Elementary School District 91 Board President Kyra Tyler on Dec. 10 said she was “furious” with district staff who, for two years in a row, approved spending $18,000 to buy advertisements in the Chicago Bears season preview magazine.
At their Dec. 10 meeting, school board members questioned Scott Dunnell, communications and public relations manager for the district, and Ed Brophy, assistant superintendent of operations, asking pointed questions about why the ads were placed, whether there were any kickbacks involved, and why the annual $18,000 amount was broken down into three smaller payments of $6,000.
Ultimately, Brophy denied any knowledge about the placement of the ad in 2020, though he admitted being informed of and approving it in 2019. The fact that it happened without his knowledge in 2020, he said, prompted him and Superintendent Lou Cavallo to make changes to the process through which expenses get approved, invoiced and paid so something like this doesn’t happen again.
Both Dunnell and Brophy denied receiving anything in exchange for the ad purchases, such as tickets to a game, though Dunnell said he did previously know the person with whom he placed the ad. He said he’d gotten a really great deal, since the ad typically would have cost $60,000.
Dunnell began with an explanation for the ad in 2019, stating that he was hired by the district for his “brand building expertise.” He said he was trying to create long-term public relations strategies.
In addition to developing a local campaign, he said his goal was also to create awareness of and interest in the community of Forest Park, since District 91 had declining enrollment and bringing families in to the community could help reverse a shrinking population of school-aged children.
Campaigns through billboards or direct mail ads, he said, were prohibitively expensive, anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, so he looked at alternatives.
At the time, the district was planning a “Bear Down on Math” campaign, involving educational opportunities for the students, including a visit from the Chicago Bears mascot. The ad would be part of a potential partnership “between the Bears and D91 to improve D91 math skills and promote the schools outside of Forest Park,” Dunnell said.
“I believed the target audience [of the Bears ad] might consider purchasing a home in Forest Park,” Dunnell said. “My intent was to go after a publication that would have a lot of pass around, and families that have money that are probably season ticket holders also think in terms of their families.”
But board members criticized his reasoning and the decision.
“The idea that season ticket holders would see the ad and consider moving to Forest Park is almost an impossible belief or conjecture,” said board member Eric Connor. “I don’t understand how an ad could be placed in that magazine with such a limited circulation, with an audience that probably would never have an interest in moving to this area.”
Later, Connor said the mistake would be a difficult thing to overcome for those responsible.
“I’ve heard this said many times,” Connor said. “One ‘oh damn’ wipes out a hundred ‘attaboys,’ and I think that’s what’s happening here. You were hired for a job, you were on track promoting out locally. … It’s a hard thing to overcome.”
“The budget wasn’t used in good conscience,” said board member Katherine Valleau. As the owner of local business Exit Strategy, she said she manages advertising with no public relations budget at all.
“There are so many free options in the world now, that will provide connection and engagement and visibility and that cast wide nets,” said Valleau.
Social media, she said, is by and large free. And ads placed on Facebook are relatively inexpensive and allow targeting your audience in different ways, such as by ZIP code, which would allow the district to reach out specifically to “our demographic and the demographic we’d like to see move into Forest Park instead of someone who lives in Northbrook, who has no inclination of moving to Forest Park.”
Tyler, the school board president, expressed her anger and frustration regarding the situation.
“I feel like you don’t get us,” she said to Dunnell, asking him how he plans to get a better understanding of Forest Park and the district, and tasking him with reflecting on the decision and figuring out how to move forward.
“This is not done,” Tyler said. “We will figure out what next steps are.”
When pressed about whether, in retrospect, he feels the ad was a good choice, Dunnell said, “I don’t think it was the best idea.”
Taking his turn in the hot seat, Brophy’s answers to board questions were broken by long pauses. He explained in detail how the new expense approval system will prevent something like this from happening again. From now on, a form must be submitted before any purchase. Approval must be given by two people before an invoice is even generated.
He made it clear, though, that although he was consulted about the ad during the first year it was placed, he knew nothing about it the second year.
“I’m supposed to be kept in the loop for all purchases,” Brophy said. “I definitely was not for the second ad.”
He later added, “It should not have happened.”
When asked why the $18,000 invoice was broken down into $6,000 chunks and whether that was intentional so attention wouldn’t be raised by the amount, Brophy said it wasn’t done for any nefarious purpose.
“The vendor suggested that if it helped not to have to commit all the dollars up front, they could produce invoices to alleviate the burden of having to pay for it all up front, in my understanding,” he replied.
Cavallo spoke toward the end of the meeting, saying the buck stopped with him.
“I am the superintendent of this district right now, and anything and everything that happens, good or bad, is under my watch,” said Cavallo, who will retire at the end of the 2020-21 school year. “So when something bad happens, when something doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to, that fall squarely on my shoulders, no matter what.”
The new expense approval policy, he said, “goes a long way to fix that” and takes away the loophole that allowed some expenses to be paid without proper approval.
With the new system, Cavallo said, “All purchases will now require multiple approvals. And there’s no minimum dollar amount at this point.”
But even prior to the new rule, all invoices were approved monthly by the school board, which signs off on them. The Review received a copy of invoices approved in November 2019.
Tyler previously told the Review the invoices in question were part of the list of bills approved as part of the consent agenda, and they never stood out to board members.
“Without any information or narrative about the purchase (the line item in the bills never mentions the Chicago Bears), it wasn’t seen as anything suspicious or unusual,” Tyler said in an email, adding that $6,000 expenditures in an almost $20 million budget “is just a small fraction.”
Contrary to what Tyler said, the line item in the list of bills does, in fact, mention the Chicago Bears. The vendor for the Bears ad invoice is listed on the board-approved voucher for the month as “Professional Sports Publication” and the description is listed as “Balance due on Chicago Bears Yearbook.”
Additionally, although the list of invoices for November 2019 is 91 pages long, only 37 items were for amounts greater than $5,000, including one of the ad payments. A perfunctory scan along the right-hand column of the pages makes it clear which invoices might warrant a second look.
The vouchers that included the $6,000 invoices were signed by the board president and secretary six times over two years.
Tyler said she thinks that she, as board president, and Cavallo, as superintendent, “are fine taking on some of this responsibility as something that was missed.”
But, she said, “It’s not necessarily because [Cavallo is] not engaged in what’s happening, but because of the way that our process was set up, and also because it wasn’t talked about in our meetings.”