Monday, March 27, 2006

Yes to oversight for school contracts

The following editorial appeared in the Daily Herald. Anyone investigating their schools finances needs to follow these money trials.

Yes to oversight for school contracts
With the emotions surrounding many of the school district referendums in last week’s election still fresh, it’s clear that taxpayers do care when it comes to how money is raised and how it is spent.

And when they are unhappy, they can take care of things at the ballot box — either by voting against a tax-increase in a referendum or by voting for their local school board members.

A new state law would put those school board members on the hot seat — where they belong — by requiring a board vote for contracts that bring in $1,000 or more in revenue. As Daily Herald staff writer Bob Susnjara reported Sunday, starting July 1, public school boards must vote on deals for vending machine exclusivity, class rings, photography, sports apparel and other items and services. A report would be required to state how the revenue was used.

We think that provides a necessary check and balance on contracts that in the suburbs have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for some school districts. For example, Stevenson High School inked a contract for soft-drink exclusivity in 2002 that is estimated to be worth $850,000 over five years.

“We learned that there was significant amounts of money for contract agreements and arrangements that sort of floated below the radar of school boards,” said state Sen. Dan Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican who helped sponsor the bill.

Another suburban district was allowing first-year teachers to sign off on income-generating contracts involving clubs. That’s just poor policy, as GOP Rep. Renee Kosel of Mokena acknowledged.

“I’m not saying there was any illegal activity going on,” she said. “I just believe we should have the sunshine of day on it.”

At Warren High in Gurnee, school officials approved tighter financial controls after it was learned the school board did not oversee a five-year $120,000 contract with Coca-Cola. Because they acted on their own and instituted controls, a Warren school board member said the new state law is not needed.

“I really think (the law) is an abuse of what a school board should be doing,” said Warren board member Charles Crowley Jr.

We disagree. There is nothing more important for a school board to do than oversee how districts spend their money. In an age when the tax cap is causing more and more districts to ask taxpayers for more money, it’s good policy for board members to have strong knowledge of all money moving into and out of the district.

The Illinois Association of School Boards took a neutral position on the law, but we’re heartened by the sentiment of Bill Dussling, president of Northwest Suburban High School District 214, in the Daily Herald story Sunday: “There should be oversight for any contracts that are signed. Absolutely.”

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