From Illinois News Network www.ilnews.org:
School Conference Costs McHenry County Taxpayers Big Money
Six of McHenry County’s largest school districts sent more than 75 administrators, staff and school board members to a single conference in Chicago in November at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $73,000.
While school officials defended the expenses as necessary to network and keep up to date on the latest education trends, an area lawmaker called the spending irresponsible and has filed legislation to ban the practice.
“When board members and multiple high-level staffers attend taxpayer-funded networking events with receptions, we must question these expenses,” state Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee, said.
“How can a board that spends thousands for a social gathering relate to families that are losing their homes because of sky-high property taxes?”
The Illinois News Network, in partnership with the Northwest Herald, filed Freedom of Information Act requests with seven county-based school districts to review their expenses related to the Illinois Association of School Boards’ annual conference.
One of the districts didn’t send anyone to the conference, which was held Nov. 17-19 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Sheraton Grand Chicago and Swissotel hotels.
According to IASB’s website, the conference included 120 panel sessions, 24 carousel panels, 13 sessions for administrators, eight board-member training workshops, three seminars for school business officials, three general sessions, a seminar for school attorneys and a superintendents’ session.
Full registration for a single attendee was $465.
Here’s what the investigation found:
- School District 300, based in Algonquin, sent 17 people at a total cost of $17,050. Registration for the 17 attendees alone cost taxpayers $8,320, including a pre-seminar upcharge for one of the attendees. Hotel and parking cost an additional $8,125, and food charges totaled $542.
- Crystal Lake-based District 47 sent 11 people, including all seven school board members, at a cost of $12,393. D-47’s expenses included a $411 group meal at Sweetwater Tavern and Grille on Michigan Avenue that included a $28.25 upcharge to reach the restaurant’s minimum for large parties and a $70 tip. It also included $1,102 in parking costs.
- District 155, Crystal Lake’s high school district, also sent 11 people at a total cost of $9,625. Expenses included $4,650 for registration, $4,461 in hotel stays, and $514 in food and travel.
- Huntley-based District 158 sent 13 people at a cost of $16,561. In addition to registration and hotel charges, expenses included $706 for parking and a room service breakfast for $33.32.
- McHenry-based District 156 sent 10 people at a cost to taxpayers of $8,873, including $403 in parking.
- Woodstock-based District 200 sent 14 people at a cost of $9,530.
- Cary-based District 26 did not send anyone and incurred no expense.
District 26 Superintendent Brian Coleman said the district does offer conference attendance to staff and board members each year.
“Sometimes folks go, and sometimes they don’t,” he said.
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School District 300, with 21,000 students, is the sixth-largest in Illinois. Superintendent Fred Heid said the district usually doesn’t send as many as 17 people to the conference, but justified it this time because of the number of new school board members and staff, and the new initiatives going on at the district and across the state.
“We typically don’t send such a large group. It really was just a perfect storm of a year,” Heid said, noting that two newly elected board members and a new district safety officer were among those who attended.
Each of the District 300 attendees focused on different areas of expertise and initiatives, Heid said, such as the newly implemented Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), changes under the Trump administration that have affected Title 1 and Title 2 of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and a move toward blended learning.
“Attendance at these events is instrumental in our ability to stay apprised of changes in policy,” Heid said in a follow up email, noting that “registration and lodging … comprised over 90 percent of each individual’s expense.”
At District 47, school board President Rob Fetzner echoed Heid’s thoughts about the value of the training and networking at the conference.
When asked about the $1,102 in parking costs and whether any of the 11 attendees carpooled to the conference, he acknowledged the district could look at ways to save taxpayer money in the future.
“That’s something that could be considered, yes,” Fetzner said.
In explaining why District 155 paid to send 11 people to the conference, school board President Adam Guss said it is the most valuable training available to board members, particularly newcomers, and staff.
“It is the major way we have any ongoing training as a board,” Guss said.
“This particular year, there was value in that we have three new board members who came on in May. I’m a new board chairman.
We have a new superintendent.
We have two new assistant superintendents.”
New Lakewood Village President Paul Serwatka, who lives in the District 47 and District 155 school districts, called associations such as IASB and their conferences “a racket.”
“You create an association, you get everyone out there, it’s government money,” he said. “You can get rich off these things.”
IASB said about 4,800 school officials from more than 700 districts across Illinois attended the event. Taxpayers in school districts across the state also pay for their school boards to be members of the Illinois Association of School Boards.
Executive Director Roger Eddy, who earned more than $344,000 in 2016 according to government watchdog OpenTheBooks.com, said the annual fee ranges from just under $1,000 to up to $40,000.
Serwatka was first elected as a village trustee in 2017.
Running on a pledge to cut costs and lower Lakewood’s tax levy, he won his race for village president last year.
In his first year as president, he and village trustees reduced expenses to the point where the village was able to lower its tax levy by 10 percent.
“Everything is always a necessity, but then you start picking it apart and there’s $12,000 here, $15,000 there, $20,000 more there,” he said. “I know that there’s just that much more waste and frivolous spending.”
Lowering Lakewood’s tax levy “was so simple, it was actually embarrassing to take credit for it,” Serwatka said.
The two Crystal Lake school districts where Serwatka resides both increased their tax levies for 2018 despite decreasing enrollment.
Skillicorn and fellow state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, are sponsoring legislation to ban what Skillicorn calls “outrageous, taxpayer-funded social gatherings” such as the IASB event. Skillicorn’s district includes portions of Algonquin, Crystal Lake, Huntley Lake in the Hills, and Lakewood, as well as parts of northern Kane County.
Heid said banning the use of taxpayer money for such conferences would be shortsighted.
“If they’re taking people out for steak and lobsters and buying alcohol, yes, I think there needs to be checks and balances there,” he said. “But to wholesale ban these, to stunt professional development, would be a mistake.”