The Examiner U-46 News Feed
Debate centers on select U-46 trip expenditures
By Seth Hancock
Some Members of the Board of Education in School District U-46 indicated that they don’t need to know how some tax dollars are spent.
That came during a board policy review of Section 4, regarding operational services, at the board meeting on Monday, Dec. 3. Changes to that policy are expecting a vote on Monday, Dec. 17.
The most hotly contested change came under Policy 4.052, expense reimbursements, which includes added language to require board approval for district trips costing $25,000 or more with additional “criteria that administration is to consider for determining the value of a trip,” according to Luis Rodriguez, assistant attorney.
That change aligns with Policy 4.060 which states that all “contracts for supplies, materials or work involving expenditure in excess of $25,000” must receive board approval.
Board member Jeanette Ward called that change a “concession” by the majority at a committee meeting, but she wants greater transparency which board member Phil Costello also sought.
Ward said she wants all trips in which the district spends taxpayer dollars for private citizens to attend also be approved by the board via a public vote which she said would be in the “spirit” of Illinois law which requires all board member travel, regardless of cost, to be voted on in public.
“The law requires us to vote in open session if any one of our members is going to take a trip using taxpayer funds,” Ward said.
The debate stemmed from a discussion from July when the public learned of a 2017 trip in which the district sent 18 people, including four members of the public (one who paid her own cost), on a sight-seeing tour of a school district in Nashville, Tennessee. That trip cost taxpayers at least $28,719 for registration and airfare according to a Freedom of Information Act request.
While Costello and Ward argued for more transparency, the majority said they didn’t care for more information. The board’s majority also offered contradictory arguments claiming there were too many trips and too few trips.
As the majority did not agree to vote on such trips, Ward suggested the board at least be informed via memo when community members receive taxpayer-funded trips which the majority also disagreed with.
Board members Sue Kerr and Melissa Owens said schools may reimburse parent volunteers for field trips, Owens saying Ward was “getting into the weeds here.”
“I don’t need to know when every school does a field trip and a parent may be compensated in some way,” said Owens adding: “The $25,000 is the threshold that we are required by law to vote on if there’s that level of expenditure.”
Regarding field trips, Costello asked: “Are those done at the school level or the district level?”
Jeff King, deputy superintendent of operations, said: “Many of them are done at the school level that we wouldn’t even know necessarily.”
Costello said he would “probably concur with that” and added: “I would think that anything at the district level that we pay for is going to come across your desk, whoever’s desk, and maybe those could be the threshold that we use. So if the district pays for it, then maybe it comes before us because I can’t imagine it happening that often in our list of expenditures that aren’t directed to the school.”
Ward agreed with that, but Kerr said when “the school pays for it, it could be the school using district funds and not just parent funds or PTO funds.”
Costello said his point was who was making the decision.
“If the school is saying go ahead and pay for Mr. Smith to go ahead and take that trip, I don’t think we should get involved in that decision,” Costello said. “But if the district is saying we’re going to reimburse Mr. Smith for taking that, then I think that we should be able to speak to that issue on a vote basis.”
“I don’t think that that happens that often that we send community members places, and it is only for them to get the experience and knowledge of what we are trying to implement within our district or decide within our district,” said Donna Smith, the board’s president. “And like I said before I have been on a couple of those trips before I was on the board, and as a parent I was very honored, I guess I would say, that I would have such, the ability for my input to be put into something that the district is trying to put together.”
Smith said the district was “very lucky” to have community members who will accept taxpayer-funded trips.
Ward said nobody was “disagreeing with any of what you said,” but “I just think the community ought to be informed, and… you admitted that it doesn’t happen very often. If the district, the central office, is going to pay for a trip by a community member, I think that at least the community ought to be informed, or the board ought to be informed.”
“I don’t feel I need to be informed about that because there’s committees and there’s groups working on that,” Smith said.
Ward said: “I don’t understand why we don’t want to inform the community of that.”
Board member Veronica Noland said “I don’t need to know… just because they happen to not be an employee” and added: “If we thought that there were abuses of this system… but we don’t have that going on.”
Costello asked for the administration to at least make a guess of how often trips like this are taken which U-46 CEO Tony Sanders said: “I can answer that. I wouldn’t know” because it’s infrequent.
Ward said “as a general principle” she believes the public should have greater transparency and Owens asked: Why?” Ward replied: “Because it’s their tax dollars and because the potential for abuse is high. I’m not saying abuse has occurred, I’m saying the potential for abuse is high.”
Kerr said Sanders is there to “prevent any sort of abuse” and “I would disagree that it’s high,” Smith said agreeing. Owens said: “That’s why we have these safeguards in place.”
Other proposed changes to Policy 4.140 would remove “athletic fees” from those that “are not eligible for waiver.” To Policy 4.025, an increase in the fund balance range from 15 to 20 percent to 20 to 25 percent was proposed.
Board member John Devereux called the range “odd” saying it should have a “no less than” number. The board agreed to “not less than 20 percent.”