For years General George S. Patton School District 133 had been struggling financially, routinely spending more money than it was bringing in.
The south suburban district in Riverdale had to make “difficult decisions” – including staff reductions – to cut expenses and “rectify our financial situation,” Supt. Carol Kunst told the Better Government Association last year.
But when it comes to board expenses for food and travel, the district apparently didn’t scale back.
General George S. Patton School in Riverdale. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Whitehead.
Patton spent at least $65,000 to send board members and, occasionally, staff to educational conferences in downtown Chicago, as well as Boston, Nashville, New York and San Diego from 2012 to 2015, according to district records.
The total cost may be even higher because receipts for transportation and hotels were missing for some of the trips, the BGA found. What’s more, conference attendees did not always provide receipts to account for their $100 a day “per diem” allowance, which Patton pays in advance.
Some of the receipts that were included showed $40 and $55 meals at Wildfire and Zed451, steakhouses in Chicago, and a $150 registration fee for a “Dinner/Broadway Show Package” in connection with a seminar in New York.
The district, which has one elementary school with approximately 315 students, additionally spent about $2,500 since 2013 on catering for board meetings, according to documents and interviews.
Critics of the district’s spending habits said the money would be better spent on the students, who are predominately African American and from low-income families. The median household income in town is about $38,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Sixty-five thousand dollars and our kids don’t have updated books or updated computers? Unbelievable,” said Cynthia Whitehead, a District 133 board member, when briefed on the BGA’s findings. “That’s really, really sad. . . . There are so many other things that that money could be used for.”
District 133 Board Member Cynthia Whitehead at the Nov. 9 school board meeting. Photo by BGA.
Whitehead said she won’t go to any of the out-of-town conferences because she doesn’t think they are worth the money, and for the events in Chicago, she says she won’t stay overnight in a hotel.
“Every penny counts,” she said. As for other board members, “they’re spending money because it’s not theirs.”
Riverdale Mayor Lawrence Jackson called the spending “shameful.” Jackson has been advocating for dissolving Patton ever since last year when the district raised its property tax levy, the amount of money the district requests during the taxing process. The board recently voted to increase the tax levy again – up 4.98 percent from last year.
Jackson said the unnecessary spending, coupled with a potential tax increase, will hurt the “underserved, impoverished” community.
For the village’s upcoming winter coat drive for Patton students, “we have a request for 90 coats, meaning their parents can’t afford to buy them coats, hats, scarves,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t help when you have the school board mismanaging these funds that should go to needy children. That’s one third of the student body there.”
School Board President Louis Peyton, however, defended the conference expenses, saying the cost is not excessive and that people go to learn – not to party.
“I can understand saying, ‘Is this necessary?’ But we’re not spending that much money and we’re not going that often. It’s not a waste,” Peyton said.
Kunst agreed and told the BGA that the board “needs the opportunity to engage in professional development.”
District 133 Superintendent Carol Kunst and Board Vice-President LaTroy Robinson at the Nov. 9 school board meeting. Photo by BGA.
But it appears the superintendent may be trying to tighten up controls, or at least warn officials about public scrutiny.
Following BGA inquiries and before an upcoming conference, Kunst wrote in a Nov. 13 letter to the board: “As a reminder, Board members must account for all expenditures from their per diem money through the submission of receipts.”
“Boards of Education remain under close scrutiny regarding expenditures associated with their attendance at conferences,” the letter continues. “Furthermore, anyone can obtain documents associated with District and Board of Education expenditures through the Freedom of Information Act.”
Last year the BGA reported on another Riverdale agency – the park district – after learning that officials there spent thousands of dollars a year on pricey meals, hotel stays and airfare to attend conferences both locally and out of state.