Responding to TribLocal account of Lake Forest High School District 115 Board Meeting

April 16, 2011

My comments posted to Tribune article by TribLocal reporter, Sue Ter Maat, about Lake Forest Community High School District 115 board meeting where taxpayers questioned District 115 superintendent compensation and budget deficit.

Comments:

TribLocal reporter Sue Ter Maat wrote a nice article about the District #115 board meeting. As the individual who spearheaded transparency in Lake Forest School Districts #67 and 115 in my role as a Liberty Leader at the Illinois Policy Institute in Chicago, there was much that slipped beneath the radar of those who are not well versed in how taxpayers in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff are being gouged through spending that is out-of-control.

My truth alarm went off several times, especially during the first portion of the board meeting when school board members and Superintendent Griffith proceeded to question the velocity of information that has been making its round via the Internet.

By the time I was able to make my comments to board members and Dr. Griffith, concerned citizens had to sit through 20 minutes of prepared statements (spin) from the board and Griffith that carefully attempted to quell the fire that was being held within by many, who had no choice but to sit patiently waiting until their positive diatribe ended which attempted to elevate Lake Forest School District #115 almost to the status of sainthood.

ACT test scores were brought up as a way to prove the effectiveness of Superintendent Harry Griffith over the years to improve the education of students at Lake Forest High School. Tests scores are good, some of the best in the state, but can Superintendent Griffith really take much credit for how well students score in ACT tests? Students from Lake Forest and Lake Bluff would naturally do well under any superintendent, as they basically come from families who expect their children to do well, with parents who themselves went to college.

The deficit and financial condition of LF District 115 was explained away as a decline in state funding and property tax revenue and the five-year union contract that will expire in June. Just what will the new contract include that must be worked out by the end of June?  And will the public be privy to the contract deals made between the union and teachers and administrators?

The financial administrator of Lake Forest District #115 failed to address in his positive-sounding report, that according to the State of Illinois Board of Education, District 115 has been on their financial “early warning” status for the past three years. LFHS has accordingly joined a select group of districts (612 out of 900) that have reached this distinction. In District #115 there has been a dwindling reserve fund, with a steady decline of fund balances from 2007 ($2.0 MM) to 2010 ($1.5 MM), with a projected $1.5 MM in 2011. Illinois code requires school districts to maintain reserve fund balance of 20% of operating expenses; however, the current and projected fund balance below 2.5% is troubling.

As reporter Sue Maat stated in her article, the compensation of Superintendent Griffith was seriously questioned. Harry Griffith, as superintendent as Districts #67 and #115, receives compensation from both school district totaling $344,396. A chart was displayed depicting Superintendent Griffith’s salary as being lower than three other suburban school superintendents. The catch: In comparing Dr. Griffith’s salary to the top superintendent’s salary on the chart, that of Wilmette where there are two superintendents making a combined total of $503.04l, Griffith makes more in salary than either of the two Wilmette superintendents because his salary combines the compensation receives from both LF School Districts Superintendent Griffiths ranks as the 2nd highest paid superintendent in the entire state of IL, and when factoring in his additional perks and compensations, Griffith makes more money in a year’s time than the Governor of IL.

Disturbing to many at the board meeting who spoke after board members and Superintendent Griffith presented their take on what they called inaccurate information was that none of their questions would be addressed that evening. Instead, the board and the superintendent would require a few days to respond with written replies which most likely would be posted on the Internet.

I have noted some of the more egregious attempts at spin during last night’s #115 District board meeting. Facts I have presented cannot be disputed, because all have been verified and checked out through my Freedom of Information requests from the Lake Forest administration.

Check my blog for postings about Lake Forest School Districts #67 and #115: http://www.wordpress.com

Article by TribLocal reporter, Sue Ter Maat: 

District 115 superintendent compensation and budget deficit questioned

Sue Ter Maat TribLocal reporter Wednesday at 7:59 a.m. Superintendent Harry Griffith’s salary and Lake Forest Community High School District 115 budget deficit this week became the focal point of a school board meeting when residents showed up to vent about both issues.

In a packed school board meeting Tuesday at Lake Forest High School’s west campus, seven people spoke out about district finances, peppering board members with a flurry of questions. While some residents said they were outraged by the way the school board had managed taxpayers’ money, a few applauded the board. Others simply wanted answers

At issue was Griffith’s $344,396 compensation package and the district’s $1.5 million budget deficit for this fiscal year, which ends in June. Lake Bluff’s Nancy Thorner, whose school district blog sparked community interest in the district’s money matters, asked for the resignations of board presidents Sharon Golan of District 115 and Julia Wold of Lake Forest School District 67. Griffith is superintendent of both districts. “This carelessness has cost tax payers so much already, but the board’s inability to act fiscally responsible is a mistake, costing millions of dollars for years to come,” Thorner said.

Lake Forest resident Ted Moorman chided the board for not being forthcoming enough in giving residents information, especially regarding district salaries. “If the board had taken a position of transparency, we would not have to be here” addressing the board, Moorman said. “The board should open up and let us know where all the money is going.”

But Lake Forest’s Janet Hughes disagreed that information was difficult to obtain. “I can’t believe the transparency,” Hughes said. “When I go to meetings, I get more information there than I know what to do with.”

Board members defended Griffith’s compensation and explained that the current deficit is due largely to the slumping economy. District officials argued that Lake Forest taxpayers spend $344,396 for the superintendent’s compensation, which is similar to other North Shore suburbs. Griffith runs two school districts, receiving $171,198 for District 115 and $173,198 for District 67, according to district figures. In Wilmette, residents pay $266,420 and $236,621 for high school and elementary district superintendent compensations, respectively, totaling $503,041, Lake Forest district officials said.

Griffith is expected to retire next year. The school board will be selecting a new superintendent whose salary will not start at Griffith’s current salary, which is based on 30 years of experience — 17 of those years in Lake Forest, Golan said. In regard to the deficit, board member said lower than expected revenues due to a decline in state funding and property tax revenue coupled with a five-year union contract hammered out when the economy was healthier, accounted for the shortfall. But the district has been addressing the issues since 2008 by not filling jobs and cutting operations, said board member Jim Carey.

Also, the district is poised to work out a new labor contract in June, he said. “There had been a cap on revenue growth and we had committed to certain expenses in a better (economic) environment,” Carey said. Golan said that the district would post a formal response to residents comments on the district’s web site at a later date.

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