Time For District 64 To Start Getting Its Due


We here at PublicWatchdog have been pretty focused on the goings on in City of Park Ridge government, especially during the last two years of the reign of Mayor Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark and his Alderpuppets.  And with good reason, we might add.

During these past two years of Frimark’s cut-in-half City Council, the City has booked over $3 million in budget deficits while neglecting such basic infrastructure needs as streets and sewers.  And it just passed a new budget that is showing a $1.8 million deficit, assuming every contingency ends up going in the City’s favor.  Otherwise, we’re in even more trouble.

But today we’re going to take a break from the City’s travails and looking at a local governmental body that gives every indication of being as ineptly managed as the City – School District 64 – even though it’s harder to tell because all seven of its Board members seem to be equally clueless about many of the matters under their authority, especially the financial ones.  That may be why they appear to have ceded most of the District’s financial decision-making (via “recommendations”) to the non-elected members of the Community Finance Committee (the “CFC”).

As reported yesterday in the on-line version of the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Positions approved for new school staff,” April 28), on Monday night the Dist. 64 Board approved the addition of four new staff members and two administrative positions for the 2009-10 school year: a full-time registered nurse, one special-education facilitator (Does he/she “facilitate” the teaching of special-ed students?  What happened to just plain “teaching”?), a literacy teacher for each of the two middle schools, and assistant principals for Field and Washington elementary schools.

According to outgoing Board member Chris Mollet, these new positions “will contribute…to the educational outcome that the children will now have the opportunity to experience.”  Huh?  Mr. Mollet, could you drop the edu-speak and try that again, this time in plain English?

We checked the District’s website of materials related to Monday night’s meeting and found these two action item forms [pdf] for the new-position vote.  Notice anything missing?  That’s right, the cost for each of these positions, or even all of them cumulatively.  And amazingly enough, the cost appears nowhere in the H-A article, either – although the article in today’s Park Ridge Journal pegs the total cost at $385,000 for four of the positions.  So we’re still not sure of the total cost of these new hires.

At least one resident, Tom Johnson, spoke out against increased costs in these tough economic times.  Thank you, Mr. Johnson.  Unfortunately, it didn’t stop the District 64 Board members, who are now flush with the cash from the 2007 referendum and can’t stop spending it – as evidenced by what appears to be an almost $5 million (7.9%) increase in expenses over last year. 

Hey, folks, since when did the cost of living go up that much?  And if we’re paying that much more in expenses, has the quality of the education – as measured by the same standardized test scores that everybody seems to use when rating the quality of schools and school districts – gone up 7.9%?  Or even 3.95%? 

Interestingly enough, the materials for the meeting included a Supt. Sally Pryor memo [pdf] announcing an “Award of Excellence” being issued to outgoing Board president Sue Runyon, who Pryor credits with being “intensively involved” in the last two successful D-64 referendums (the “Yes/Yes” Emerson one in 1997, and the financial bail-out referendum of 2007), as well as for making the District’s finances “more transparent and understandable to local citizens as a steering committee member of the Community Finance Committee (CFC).”   

If that agenda memo for the six new positions with no cost numbers attached is any indication, however, it would seem that “more transparent” still leaves a lot to be desired…and causes us to wonder just how bad “less transparent” might be.

But, then again, that award is coming from the Illinois chapter of something called the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that describes its “mission” as “to advance education through responsible communication” – which it accomplishes “through a variety of diverse services that we provide to Our Members and to other school leaders who contract with or buy from us.”

Hmmmm…that sure sounds a lot like “Have Propaganda, Will Travel.”  For a price.  From our perspective, that’s the last thing a school district (or any other governmental entity, for that matter) needs or should want.  Unless, of course, scamming the taxpaying public and avoiding accountability is the goal – in which case good P.R. is essential.

And guess what.  NSPRA’s website advertises how it provides “experienced advice on a wide range of troublesome topics” like: “Marketing your schools”; “Engaging your community on key issues” and “Passing a bond or budget referendum….” (like the two Dist. 64 referendums, perhaps?); and “Neutralizing pressure groups or dealing with the media during bad times.”  Sound familiar?

As best as we can tell, during Ms. Runyon’s tenure District 64’s finances spiraled downward to the point where the District had made enough appearances on the State Board of Education’s financial “Early Warning” or “Watch” lists that it was in danger of having its finances taken over by the State Board – before they were temporarily salvaged by the back-door issuance of $5 million of “working cash bonds” in 2005, without a public vote.  In 2007, the District finally went to referendum and, with a $25,000-plus campaign war chest from Citizens for Strong Schools, won itself what appears to have been the biggest District 64 tax increase in at least 20 years.

Per Supt. Pryor, Ms. Runyon was “instrumental” in that referendum request.  Too bad she hasn’t been “instrumental” in the biggest increase in educational improvement in at least 20 years…or even 10.

So Ms. Runyon will have to do without a congratulatory wag of the Watchdog’s tail, since it appears that her Award of Excellence has more to do with selling the residents on whatever quality of education the District provides than with actually improving the quality of that education in any notable, measurable way.

Vaya con Dios.