Gouging Taxpayers in the Chicago Suburbs

More and more communities and state governors have begun to question the relationship between teachers, their elected boards, their superintendents and the unions which represent them, in the wake of Wisconsin's union rampages.

Upon checking my Lake Forest, Illinois School Districts 67 and 115 websites, I found them difficult to navigate, with little transparency, and with information that was often out-of-date.  It was then that I began to request information missing from the websites through issuing Freedom of Information Act requests to the FOIA Officer of School District 115.

After sifting through hundreds of pages of FOIA responses, I was unprepared for what I uncovered in Lake Forest School District 115, funded by taxpayers in the upscale communities of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.  Both communities have a rich historical background, bordering Lake Michigan and located 40 miles north of Chicago, IL.  Lake Forest includes estates and homes designed by distinguished architects like Howard Van Doren Shaw, David Adler, Arthur Heun, Henry Ives Cobb, and modernist George Fred Keck among others.  

Lake Bluff, my home town, has the appearance of a quaint New England town with a Gazebo located on its Village Green. Lake Bluff was proclaimed during the First World War as the "most patriotic small town in America for the efforts of the residents in supporting the Red Cross and purchasing an ambulance to send to France."  A few miles north of Lake Bluff is the Great Lakes Naval Base.

What has been allowed to happen in Lake Forest District 115 -- the high school district shared by Lake Bluff students -- is alarming, given the insatiable wage and benefit appetite of unions representing teachers and superintendents and school board passivity in coping with reality.  

My transparency project opened a "can of worms" in my local school districts.  As to be expected, teachers in Lake Forest Districts 115 and 67 are paid extremely well.  Out of l69 full time and part-time administrators and teachers employed by District 115, 89 of them earn more than $100,000 per year and another twenty-one earn salaries of $90,000 to $100,000, with no obligation to contribute to their pensions.  

But far worse was what I discovered through countless days and hours of searching through FOIA documents.  Dr. Harry Griffith, superintendent of Districts 67 and 115, was the second highest paid superintendent in the State of Illinois in 2009-10 at $358,540, overseeing a student population of 3,873.  This was an upgrade from the year before when Dr. Griffith ranked 5th.  In a down economy, even residents in the upscale communities of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff are losing jobs and facing home foreclosures.

If this were the finale to my investigation, Dr. Griffith's salary could be dismissed as just a rather lavish salary paid by wealthy school districts in two upscale communities.

Harry Griffith, however, has been able to negotiate a contract to receive benefits and perquisites which brings his total compensation for the 2010-11 school year to over $430,000.  Griffith's compensation package amounts to more than the Chicago and Milwaukee school chiefs and the governor of Illinois!

Specific provisions provided in Griffith's employment contract include:

1) bonuses every year of up to $19,000;

2) an additional $30,000 annual contribution paid into the annual Teacher Retirement System;

3) an insurance policy with a death benefit of $1 million;

4) 27 days of vacation time, plus regular holidays and 13 sick days;

5) free health and dental coverage for self and family totaling about $20,000 per year;

6) a term life insurance policy with a death benefit of $1 million; 

7) write-off of a loan of $75,000 to purchase a home in Lake Forest when moving from a position in Texas, despite failure to comply with the loan's original intent; and

8) a paid automobile lease for a car of his choice, all gasoline purchased in Lake Forest, and all maintenance of the car and related insurance.

In addition, Lake Forest Boards 67 and 115 evaluate Dr.Griffith's progress in accomplishing "District Goals" as set forth each year by the Board of Education and then awards Griffith a bonus.  But the Board and Dr. Griffith are able to delete or modify goals if determined that circumstance beyond control prevented the goals from being attained.

Could things get any worse for Lake Forest and Lake Bluff tax payers?  Yes it does! 

To complement Superintendent Griffith's lavish salary and compensation package, the Boards of Education for Lake Forest School District 67 and High School District 115 agreed to a lucrative retirement package to carry Dr. Griffith into his sunset years.  Dr. Griffith's Over-the-Top Retirement Package would seem to exceed the retirement packages of any other superintendent in the state of Illinois and perhaps in the nation when he retires at the end of the 2012 school year. 

Included in Dr.Griffith's over-the-top retirement package

1) Upon retirement in June of 2012, Dr. Griffith will collect over $300,000 a year from the Teacher Retirement System in Illinois with guaranteed increases of 3% per year, plus a lavish annuity of hundreds of thousands of dollars that the school district purchased to augment his retirement income;

2) full cost of hospital, surgical, major medical, and dental insurance for Dr. Griffith and his family until October 31, 2015;

3) a continuation of Griffith's term life insurance with a $1 million death benefit until his 65th birthday;

4) and the car leased by the district for Griffith's use will be given to him on the day he retires.

Whatever happened to the gold watch?

In a bit of double talk, Dr. Griffith stated for the public record during the winter of 2010 that the School Boards had held administrative salaries flat for Districts 67 and 115 during 2008-09 and would continue to do again for 2009-10 at a local website, "Gazebo News,"  But Dr. Griffith received a 6% increase to his compensation package across the board for both years! 

How many other school districts are out of control throughout this nation where tax payer money is being spent, not for the kids, but for the financial benefit of teachers and administrators at a time when those in the private sector are being asked to make sacrifices?

As one who taught pubic school music before teacher unions were formed, I realize that teachers and superintendents must be paid a reasonable salary in order to insure that top students enter the field of education.  But how much is enough?

It is evident that Lake Forest School Districts 67 and 115 are out-of-control and not looking out for taxpayers.  What about your local school districts?  Is a transparency project warranted to search below the surface to find what is conveniently hidden beneath?

The ultimate responsibility for lavish contracts lies with the school boards and their members who negotiated and signed the contracts.  In the public sector, where taxpayer dollars are being used, there is no place for lavish financial compensations and rewards which outstrip those realized in the private sector.

Hat tip: 

I researched this article by applying a "10-Point Transparency Checklist" from Liberty Leader -- a non-profit research organization located in Chicago, IL and  headed by CEO John Tillman -- for the past several months " developed to foster accountability in government at all levels.