Sunday, July 23, 2006

State rips school district

The following article appears in the Chicago Tribune.

Jo Napolitano did an excellent job reporting on this story. The story below is not an uncommon story. Research and investigate your own district and you will find waste, fraud, corruption and/or patronage. Many people are doing this across Illinois. The find it to be enjoyable, educating and an enlightening experience. It is also tough work at times because you will might a wall of resistance. School districts will get away with whatever they can unless someone is watching over them. This all can be done in as little as one hour a week.

State rips school district
Harvey-Dixmoor told to repay millions

By Jo Napolitano
Tribune staff reporter
Published July 20, 2006

The Illinois State Board of Education wants West Harvey-Dixmoor Elementary School District 147 to return more than $2.2 million in federal and state grants, saying the money was either unaccounted for or misspent.

It is unclear how the cash-strapped district would repay the money, but state officials say it could be deducted from future grants.

An inch-thick report from the monthslong investigation into how the district spent about $10.2 million in grants over a 3-year period ending in 2005 was released Wednesday. It includes numerous rebuttals from the district, although state officials deemed most of the claims "inadequate."

Robert Wolfe, head of the state board's external assurance division, said his office has a legal and moral obligation to make sure the grants "get to the kids who need it the most."

Although many of the district's employees may be working hard to educate children, the spending and record-keeping practices are unacceptable, Wolfe said. The state plans to regularly monitor the district, although no formal plan has been established, he added.

District parents say they are disgusted but not surprised by the findings. David Scott, father of two students, said Supt. Alex Boyd and school board members should be held accountable.

"I think [Boyd] should have stepped down a long time ago," Scott said. "And the school board needs to step down because they allowed it."

Kevin Gordon, an attorney representing the district, had not yet seen the state report but said the district stands by its claims.

"The school district's position is that it has not misspent those monies and that it will be reviewing this matter with the state board," Gordon said.

Neither Boyd nor Assistant Supt. Laurice Geanes could be reached for comment.

The state's attorney's office has asked for a copy of the report and is conducting an investigation of the district, said a source familiar with the probe. State officials say the $2.2 million includes more than $119,000 in meals, $157,000 in travel and $211,000 for salaries and benefits, none of which is allowable under terms of the grants. The district spent $119,491 on items including clown services, cameras, televisions, furniture and T-shirts, which are also not allowed.

Records show the state found more than 200 questionable expenditures in Title I funds alone. That money is earmarked for children from low-income families to help them meet state academic standards.

Almost 97 percent of the district's 1,715 students are considered low-income, and only 36.2 percent passed the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests in 2004-05. Statewide, almost 70 percent passed.

The district used Title I funds to purchase $250 worth of costumes and wigs for an end-of-the-year party, $562 for Fannie May candies and $471 for a pizza party for students with perfect attendance, records show. Thousands more was spent on electronic equipment, including a $328 digital camera.

School officials used the same grant to pay a visiting speaker about $7,200 to talk about student achievement. An additional $2,400 was spent on baby-sitters to allow parents to attend a school meeting.

Then there's the food.

Mini-Kaiser sandwich trays, chicken, salads and rolls and other meals added thousands more; a lunch cruise in February 2005 cost $1,800.

The district also spent hundreds on Christmas stockings, furniture and tote bags. Officials had trophies engraved, spent more than $1,200 on catering and flowers for a teachers' meeting and bought a mini-fridge, all with grant money.

They took numerous trips but didn't keep adequate records or receipts, state officials said. It's hard to tell who went where and for what purpose in some cases. As a result, the state has urged the district to come up with a more formal travel reimbursement policy.

School officials have long complained about a shrinking tax base and deteriorating state aid, but critics believe officials have squandered the funding they did get.

Scott said the district's leaders lost sight of their purpose--to serve the children of West Harvey/Dixmoor.

"It's about our students and their education," he said. "Are we concerned about our students at all? I think they deserve a chance."

Wayne Tellis, who lives in the district, is weary of what he termed the school board's double talk.

"I just think it's unconscionable that the officials have taken the citizens for fools," he said. "I'm not totally surprised because there were so many indications. I just had in the back of my mind, `There's something wrong here.'"

Tellis, whose wife teaches in the district, and Scott said they were suspicious of the district's spending practices in light of the reluctance to hand over certain financial documents that should be made public under the Freedom of Information Act.

Even school board members have said the district's leadership is unwilling to share basic financial information.

Board member Bonnie Rateree said she had not seen the state's report, but would research the matter on Thursday.

"That's my job; to find out and to hold people accountable."


Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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